Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, speaks before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C. (Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

Mueller Revelations Put Sessions in Awkward Political Spot

(Bloomberg) -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions is facing renewed questions over how much he knew about Russian efforts to interfere with the U.S. election, after it was revealed this week that he attended meetings with a Trump campaign adviser who claimed to have extensive contacts with Russians.

Sessions, who as a Republican senator served as a top foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump during his presidential campaign, testified in January that he wasn’t aware of any campaign contacts with Russia. But court documents filed this week by Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed that George Papadopoulos, an unpaid foreign policy adviser, said he had interactions with Russians and was told Moscow had “dirt” on Democrat Hillary Clinton. 

Papadopoulos -- who boasted of his Russian connection in at least one meeting Sessions attended -- pleaded guilty to lying about the timing of those contacts, becoming the first person who served on Trump’s campaign to admit to committing a crime.

The revelations revived questions about Sessions’s credibility.

Franken’s Letter

Senator Al Franken, whose exchange with Sessions in January has prompted a continuing dispute, said in a letter to Sessions on Thursday that the Papadopoulos revelations are “another example in an alarming pattern in which you, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, apparently failed to tell the truth, under oath, about the Trump team’s contacts with agents of Russia.” The Minnesota Democrat said the latest disclosure suggests that the American people “cannot trust your word.”

Judiciary Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont issued a statement calling on Sessions to return to the panel and "explain why he cannot seem to provide truthful, complete answers to these important and relevant questions." Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, also a member of the panel, asked Sessions to "correct any omissions and any statements that may have been incorrect or misleading."

Even so, it’s unclear how hard Democrats will go after Sessions even if they conclude that he lied to Congress. Many objected over the summer when Trump fumed at Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and began hinting he would fire his attorney general. If Sessions were pushed out, it would give Trump the chance to appoint a new attorney general -- who would have the authority to fire Mueller and take over the Russia probe.

Papadopoulos was named by Trump as a member of his foreign policy advisory panel in March 2016, when the candidate was trying to bolster his credentials as he moved to secure the Republican nomination for president. Sessions was head of the panel. In reality, the group met only once or twice and didn’t really function.

Papadopoulos said he received the information in April 2016 that Russians had “dirt” on Clinton and thousands of emails -- about three months before the WikiLeaks organization began releasing troves of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, according to the court filing. While prosecutors say Papadopoulos shared information about his Russian contacts with the campaign, they don’t say whether he told superiors about the emails.

But an FBI agent’s affidavit supporting criminal charges against Papadopoulos said he also claimed in an email that top Trump campaign officials, who weren’t identified, approved a pre-election meeting with representatives of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During a March 2016 meeting of the foreign policy advisory committee that Sessions chaired and Trump attended, Papadopoulos said he could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin, according to the court filing.

Sessions immediately rejected the proposal to arrange a meeting and thought that put an end to the idea, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified commenting on private discussions. Sessions has no clear recollection of Papadopoulos and doesn’t recall any further interactions with him, including phone calls or emails, the person said.

It’s possible Papadopoulos may have been at Trump events that Sessions also attended, including a dinner at the Capitol Hill Club with some members of the foreign policy committee during the summer of 2016, the person said.

The Key Exchange

Nonetheless, the court filing on Papadopoulos is now being contrasted with long-disputed answers Sessions gave the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing about Trump’s campaign, including the exchange with Franken.

Franken asked: “If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”

Sessions replied: “I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have -- did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”

The attorney general has since said that he interpreted questions from Franken and other senators to be about whether he knew of continuous, improper contacts between Trump surrogates and Russian operatives, and that he didn’t.

The person familiar with Sessions’ activity during the campaign said his testimony has been truthful and consistent. He wasn’t aware of any ongoing exchanges of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government, the person said.

‘What Happened?’

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, said it makes sense to ask Sessions to clarify the chain of events and how he reconciles it with his testimony before the committee.

“It might be worth writing a letter and saying ‘What happened?’ I wouldn’t mind writing a letter, because he was pretty definitive he never had that discussion about Russia,” Graham of South Carolina said in an interview.

Senator Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who’s chairman of the committee, said he needs to look at the issue before commenting.

While Democrats made clear that the Papadopoulos revelations raise new questions about whether Sessions told the truth to Congress, there was little indication they’d pursue the politically and legally uncertain possibility that the nation’s top law enforcement official could be prosecuted for perjury.

“He may still have technically answered the question correctly,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat.

Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University law school, said he views a perjury case against Sessions as weak.

“The clarity of the question and the answer could be easily challenged,” Turley said in an email. “It is rare to see cases for perjury to Congress generally because the exchanges are often imprecise or rather fluid in nature. ”

Josh Chafetz, a professor at Cornell University Law School, said lawmakers could try to use “various other tools in the congressional arsenal,” from reducing Justice Department appropriations to refusing to confirm appointees reporting to him.

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