What you need to know about Jeff Sessions and why he’s under fire over contacts with Russia

Sen. Al Franken questions AG Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing on alleged Russian contact with the Trump campaign. Jan. 10, 2017 (C-SPAN)

New revelations about Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions’ meeting with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak twice last year caused a firestorm in Washington on Thursday, prompting Democratic demands for his resignation. Sessions, under pressure from fellow Republicans, announced Thursday that he would recuse himself from an FBI investigation examining Russian meddling in the election.

Let’s unpack why the issue could have a big impact on Trump and his closest associates.

Who is Jeff Sessions?

Before he was confirmed by the Senate as Trump’s attorney general last month, the 70-year-old spent two decades in the Senate representing Alabama, which he previously served as state attorney general. He was also one of Trump’s closest advisors during the campaign, counseling the Republican candidate on immigration and foreign policy and speaking frequently on his behalf in public.

How close is he to Trump?

Sessions endorsed Trump more than a year ago, becoming the first senator to do so. He was a constant presence on the campaign trail and has been particularly influential on immigration policy. The two men share strong views that were once considered far outside the GOP mainstream, including the belief that even legal immigration should be limited further.


Sessions’ former Senate aide, 31-year-old Stephen Miller, serves as Trump’s senior policy advisor. He helped craft some of Trump’s most fiery campaign rhetoric as well as early executive orders cracking down on immigration and one that was blocked in the courts that halted travel to the U.S. for people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

So what’s wrong with him talking to Russians?

Nothing, by itself. But there are several issues in this case. Let’s start with the most basic one: Sessions testified under oath during his Senate hearing that he never spoke with the Russian government.

“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions testified, while replying to a question from Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat.

When did he meet with the Russians?

He held at least two meetings with Kislyak, in July and September. The Washington Post first reported the contacts Wednesday night. A September meeting took place in Sessions’ office. A brief July meeting took place after an event with the Heritage Foundation.

What does Sessions say about this?

After the meetings were reported, Sessions modified his stance, saying he never met with the Russian government specifically to discuss campaign issues.

“I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said Thursday.

Sessions said he believed that Franken’s question related to that topic, which was in the news at the time, and was not meant to encompass any and all contacts with the Russians.

“My reply to the question of Sen. Franken was honest and correct as I understood at the time,” he said.

Sessions said the September meeting covered a range of topics and that he did not remember all of them. But he recalled that the meeting grew testy over the subject of Russian aggression in Ukraine and that he declined an invitation for a follow-up lunch.

Is that really such a big deal? Don’t politicians fudge the truth all the time?

Doing so under oath is a big problem. Sessions raised the issue as a fundamental concern during President Clinton’s impeachment, ultimately voting to remove him from office.

“I am concerned about a president under oath, being alleged to have committed perjury. I hope that he can rebut that and prove that did not happen,” Sessions said at the time. “… In America, the Supreme Court and the American people believe no one is above the law.”

Now Sessions is the country’s chief law enforcement officer, overseeing agents and prosecutors around the country who gather and depend on the veracity of sworn testimony every day.

Session must have had an easy confirmation since he served in the Senate

Far from it. Sessions had one of the toughest, drawing intense opposition from Democrats and progressive interest groups, who said his views on immigration, gay rights, abortion and other issues were extreme. The Senate rejected Sessions for a federal judgeship in 1986 after testimony that he had made racist comments, including a crack about the Ku Klux Klan being OK with him, “until I found out they smoked pot.”

After debates that included the forced removal of liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sessions was confirmed as attorney general by a 52-47 vote, with support from just one Democrat, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

You said there were several issues. What are the other ones?

The other big one involves Russia. The intelligence community has concluded that the Russian government deliberately meddled in the November election, with the intent of helping Trump and hurting his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

The FBI and other federal agencies are investigating whether Trump’s associates and campaign aides had contact with Russian officials in the months leading up to the election.

Sessions oversees the FBI.

This sounds familiar.

Well, yes. There have been lots of stories about Trump allies getting bad publicity for meeting with Russians.

Did anything come of reports of contacts between the Russians and Trump allies?

Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, resigned just a few weeks into the job. He had spoken with Kislyak about U.S. sanctions over Russia’s election meddling, contacts that were criticized as improper because Trump was not yet sworn into office and the Obama administration was still setting U.S. foreign policy. Flynn resigned after it became public that he misled several White House officials about the contacts, including Vice President Mike Pence.

So will anything happen to Sessions?

That’s far from clear. Top Democrats have called on him to resign. Even Manchin, a sometime Trump ally and Sessions’ sole Democratic supporter in the Senate, said he should resign “if he lied under oath.” But Trump said Thursday that he has “total” confidence in Sessions.

Of course, Democrats are out to get Sessions. What about Republicans?

So far, none in Congress has called for his resignation. But several party leaders had called on him to recuse himself from the investigation, before his Thursday afternoon announcement. None has called for a special prosecutor, though Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) came close, requesting “an independent review by a credible third party.”

Sessions said the decision to recuse himself had already been under consideration with senior staff, who recommended that he recuse himself “since I had involvement with the campaign.”

What can Sessions do to keep this from getting worse?

He needs to keep support from Trump and hope that GOP members of Congress don’t defect. But even those in his own party may have a hard time on this one. Senators tend to give the president’s Cabinet a long leash, but they are pretty sensitive about telling the truth during Senate hearings. After all, they’re the ones asking the questions.

How does this affect Trump?

He can’t be happy. He was hoping to spend Thursday basking in the reception of his speech to Congress two nights earlier and begin his efforts to sell a legislative agenda that includes a substantial increase in military spending, tax cuts and money for a border wall. Now, the only topics in Washington are Sessions and Russia. The Russia stories have been particularly galling to Trump, prompting many of his most angry tweets about “fake news.”

Will this cause any long-term damage for Trump?

It could. Much depends on what happens to Sessions. If the episode prompts the appointment of a special prosecutor, it could keep the issue alive much longer and open new areas of inquiry.

It could die down as well. If Sessions can get past the apparently false statements to Congress, he could minimize the damage. There’s nothing illegal about a senator meeting with a foreign diplomat.

How long has Trump been president?

It seems like a lifetime’s worth of news. But we’re only on Week 6.

Twitter: @noahbierman


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1:35 p.m.: This article was updated with Sessions’ announcement that he is recusing himself from the investigation.

This article was originally published at 12:05 p.m.