During a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) detailed how Attorney General Jeff Sessions has moved repeatedly the goalposts about his communications with Russians. Sessions responded by subtly moving the goalposts yet again.
Sessions denied having any communications with Russians whatsoever during his confirmation hearing in January. But under questioning by Franken on Wednesday, Sessions retreated all the way to merely denying “a continuing exchange of information” with Russian officials.
The exchange came after Franken asked Sessions to explain the shifting statements he’s made since he told senators he “did not have communications with the Russians” during his confirmation hearing in January. Less than two months later, Justice Department officials told the Washington Post that Sessions hadn’t told the truth — he had in fact met with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at least twice during the campaign. That led to Sessions recusing himself from overseeing the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign for possible collusion with Russia.
In response to the Post’s reporting, Sessions acknowledged that the meetings occurred, but denied discussing anything of a political nature with Kislyak. But as the Wall Street Journal reported, one of Sessions’ meetings with Kislyak happened at the 2016 Republican National Convention — an event Sessions traveled to and from using campaign funds. What’s more, a person who was at the RNC told the Journal that Sessions and Kislyak discussed the Trump campaign.
By July, the Department of Justice was left denying just that Sessions had discussions with foreign officials “concerning any type of interference” with the 2016 election — a far cry from what he said in January.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Franken drilled down on Sessions’ slippery explanations.
“First it was, ‘I did not have communications with Russians,’ which was not true,” Franken told Sessions. “Then it was, ‘I never met with any Russians to discuss any political campaign,’ which may or may not be true. Now it’s, ‘I did not discuss interference in the campaign,’ which further narrows your initial blanket denial about meetings with the Russians.”
“Since you have qualified your denial to say that you did not, quote, discuss issues of the campaign with the Russians, what in your view constitutes ‘issues of the campaign?'” asked Franken.
Sessions didn’t answer. Instead, he asserted he “conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country,” and made a show of getting indignant about Franken’s line of questioning.
— CSPAN (@cspan) October 18, 2017
Franken later expressed bewilderment that Sessions was conflating being unsure about what was said during a meeting with forgetting about a meeting entirely.
“Not being able to recall what you discussed with him is very different than saying, ‘I have not had communications with the Russians,'” Franken said. “The ambassador of Russia is a Russian.”
Sessions replied by claiming, absurdly, that when Franken asked him whether “there was a continuing exchange of information between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,” he thought the question was true only if each and every one of Trump’s surrogates was in touch with Russian officials — an explanation that left Franken guffawing.
“It didn’t say some of [them] — it said his surrogates,” Sessions insisted, before complaining that he was tired when he denied communicating with Russian officials during his confirmation hearing.
“And I responded on the spot — it had been six hours in the hearing, at the end of the day — and I said, ‘I’m not aware of those activities,’ and I wasn’t, and am not, and I don’t believe they occurred,” Sessions said.
“I didn’t have a continuing exchange of information. So now you take that and say if I ever met with a Russian, I haven’t been candid with the committee, and I reject that,” Sessions added — with his remark about “a continuing exchange of information” suggesting that the goalposts are moving yet again. After all, a discussion or possibly two with the Russian ambassador about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election on Trump’s behalf may not, in Sessions’ mind, constitute a “continuing exchange.”