Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions faces scrutiny for alleged third meeting with Russian ambassador
Former FBI Director James B. Comey told senators at a closed-door briefing that the FBI was examining whether Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions had a third, undisclosed discussion with a senior Russian diplomat at a Washington hotel last year.
The information indicated that Sessions may have had a private encounter with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to Washington, on the sidelines of a campaign event at the Mayflower Hotel on April 27, 2016, when Sessions was a U.S. senator from Alabama, according to an U.S. official familiar with the briefing.
Comey described the unverified intelligence in a classified session shortly after he had told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that he was “aware of facts” about Sessions that he could not discuss in public.
A Justice Department spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, denied that Sessions had spoken to the Russian envoy at the hotel.
“The then-Senator did not have any private or side conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel,” she said in a statement.
The development was the latest to suggest a widening series of investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and any nexus between the Trump campaign and authorities in Moscow. A special counsel also is reviewing Comey’s claim that Trump asked him to “let go” of an FBI investigation.
On Friday, the House Intelligence Committee wrote White House Counsel Don McGahn, asking if the White House had any tapes or memos “now or in the past” about Comey’s private conversations with Trump.
“To the extent they exist now,” the committee requested copies by June 23.
After he fired Comey on May 9, Trump tweeted that the ousted FBI chief should be careful in case the White House had secretly taped their conversations.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey told the Senate committee on Thursday, urging that they be released.
At a brief news conference in the Rose Garden on Friday, Trump promised to say “in the very near future” if the tapes exist. He told reporters they would be “very disappointed when you hear the answer.”
Sessions already has come under fire for failing to publicly disclose two other meetings with Kislyak, the Russian diplomat who has been a pivotal figure in the investigations.
Although he is the nation’s highest law enforcement official, Sessions recused himself on March 2 from any role in those investigations after news reports revealed that he had failed to tell his Senate confirmation hearing about the two other meetings with Kislyak.
His decision to step down reportedly infuriated President Trump, and the two have had such a testy relationship in recent weeks that multiple news reports said Sessions at one point had offered to resign.
On Thursday, the Justice Department said that Sessions had decided to recuse himself because of his role in Trump’s presidential campaign, saying “it was for that reason and that reason only.” It did not mention his meetings with Kislyak.
Sessions has denied any wrongdoing, saying his two meetings with the Russian diplomat — first during an event at the Republican National Convention last July and again at his Senate office in September — were routine given his responsibilities on Capitol Hill.
Trump gave his first major foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel and later greeted Kislyak in a VIP receiving line, according to a right-leaning think tank that sponsored the event, the Center for the National Interest.
Sessions and Trump’s son-in-law and presidential advisor, Jared Kushner, also attended the speech, which drew heavy news coverage at the time.
Sessions’ name came up in Comey’s testimony on Thursday when he said that Trump had asked him in the Oval Office on Feb. 14 to drop an FBI investigation of Michael Flynn, who had been forced out the day before as national security advisor for lying about his own conversations with Kislyak.
Comey said he and his senior staff believed that Trump’s comment was “very concerning” but decided not tell Sessions. The FBI is part of the Justice Department that Sessions heads.
Comey said he didn’t feel it necessary to tell Sessions because he expected him to step down from the Russian investigation. He did so two weeks later.
“We were also aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic, ” Comey added Thursday. He described the Mayflower event in the classified session that followed.
“After Mr. Comey’s testimony, more questions remain about Jeff Sessions’ involvement in the Russia investigation that he must answer,” Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-CA), a member of the committee, said Friday. “It’s clear his recusal is not worth the paper it’s written on since he was involved in the firing of the person running the very investigation he’s recused from.”
Several news outlets have previously reported that the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee were looking at the possibility of a third meeting between Sessions and Kislyak at the Mayflower. CNN reported that the intelligence derived from a U.S. intercept of Russian communications.
In a statement it released in March, the Center for the National Interest said it invited Kislyak and three other ambassadors, who sat in the front row while Trump said he wanted to explore better relations with Russia.
“I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia — from a position of strength only — is possible, absolutely possible,” Trump said. “Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out.”
Kislyak and about two dozen others also attended a reception with Trump and Sessions before the speech, the center said. Trump shook hands in a receiving line.
“The line moved quickly and any conversations with Mr. Trump in that setting were inherently brief and could not be private,” the center said, saying that Trump and Kislyak’s conversation “was limited to the polite exchange of pleasantries appropriate on such occasions.”
The statement added that no one at the center was aware of any conversations between Sessions and Kislyak. “We consider it unlikely that anyone could have engaged in a meaningful private conversation without drawing attention from others present.”
Sen. Al Franken, (D-Minn.), said on May 31 that he and other senators had received information that suggested Sessions may have had more substantive meetings with Russian officials, including at the Mayflower event, than previously acknowledged.
He said he and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, had written a private letter to Comey, then FBI director, asking him to investigate.
“It had been characterized one way, but we had some reason to believe that wasn’t the case,” Franken said on MSNBC. “It was described in a way that he could plausibly say, ‘I don’t remember that.’”
Times staff writer David S. Cloud contributed to this story.
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