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Jeff Sessions and the Russia connection: what happened and why does it matter?

The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, has called for the US attorney general to resign over his links to Russia. Will he?

By Stephanie Kirchgaessner / The Guardian / Thursday 2 March 2017 07.46 EST


What happened?

It has been revealed by the Washington Post that Jeff Sessions, the US attorney general, met Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak on two occasions last year. The first meeting occurred when Kislyak was one of a group of ambassadors to approach Sessions as he was leaving the podium at an event at the Republican National Convention in July. The second incident – in September – was a private meeting held in the then-senator’s office. That meeting took place as US intelligence officials were investigating Russian interference in the presidential election.

Sessions did not disclose the conversations when asked under oath during his Senate confirmation hearing in early 2017 about possible contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

Why is this important?

The report raises the question of whether Sessions, the nation’s top law enforcement official and a key member of the Trump administration, lied under oath during his confirmation hearing.

Trump associates’ links with Russia: what we know so far  READ MORE

It also makes it likely that he will recuse himself from the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia, and strengthens calls for a special and fully independent prosecutor to take over the investigation.

The FBI director, Jim Comey, is leading the inquiry. Comey reports to Sessions, whose role grants him the power to influence the depth of the investigation and decide on whether criminal charges are ultimately brought against any individuals.

There is certainly precedent for the US attorney general to recuse him or herselffrom investigations if there is any whiff of conflict of interest or impropriety.

In a wider sense, the development reopens the debate about Russia’s alleged influence over and contacts with Trump officials, just as Trump was basking in the praise of political allies and some pundits for his first address to congress. Less than a month ago, Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, was fired when it emerged that he had misled the vice-president, Mike Pence, about conversations he had had with Kislyak.

Could these meetings have been entirely appropriate?

Yes. Sessions was a senior member of the Senate armed services committee and his spokeswoman has said that, in that capacity, he had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors. But the Washington Post asked all 26 members of the Senate armed services committee at that time whether they, too, had met with Kislyak. Of the 20 senators who responded, each said they had not had any such meeting.

Did Sessions lie under oath?

Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, is in no doubt. “After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the attorney general must resign,” she said.

But unnamed White House officials cited by the Washington Post say Sessions did not consider his conversations with Kislyak to be relevant to the questions posed to him in his confirmation hearing and that he did not remember the nature of his discussions with the ambassador.

As part of his confirmation, Sessions was also asked in written form whether he had had any contact with “any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election”, to which he answered: “No.” If Sessions and Kislyak did not discuss the election, that answer would be truthful.

Has Sessions been suspected of having Russia ties before?

Not really. Several other Trump campaign and administration officials have had contacts with Russia, which you can read about here. But Sessions was a controversial appointment because of vehemently denied accusations of racism, not due to any alleged ties to Russia.

Who is Sergey Kislyak?

Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the US

Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Photograph: Cliff Owen/AP

The Russian ambassador has been paid a lot of attention by US intelligence and FBI officials. According to his official biography, Kislyak has served in the Russian foreign ministry for four decades. He also served as ambassador to Belgium, permanent representative of Russia to Nato, and as deputy foreign minister. He is considered by US intelligence sources to be a top Russian spy recruiter in Washington, according to CNN, which cited unnamed US officials.

What happens now?

There are at least three known investigations into the Trump officials’ alleged ties and communication with Russia. They are being led by the FBI and the two congressional intelligence committees. If Sessions recuses himself from involvement in the FBI investigation, it will probably give the FBI director, James Comey, more freedom to pursue the investigation without the interference or involvement of Sessions, a Trump appointee. It also means that Comey will probably have more freedom to determine what information to release publicly and whether to bring charges against any individual.

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