In response to a court order directing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to disclose the part of his security clearance form detailing his Russia contacts, the Department of Justice released a mostly blank page of paper.
The Thursday morning “disclosure” comes in response to a lawsuit from an ethics watchdog group.
According to NPR, a “recently-launched ethics watchdog group called American Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request in March for sections of the Standard Form 86 [i.e., security clearance] relating to Sessions’ contacts ‘with any official of the Russian government.’” On June 12, a judge ordered the DOJ to comply with the request within 30 days.
As recently as Wednesday, the DOJ said it planned to comply with the court order. But the deadline came and went this week.
On Thursday morning, the DOJ finally made an attempt to comply with the court order by disclosing a single page document that is almost totally redacted. The one exception is a box checked ‘No,’ indicating Sessions has not had contact with a foreign government in the last seven years.
— American Oversight (@weareoversight) July 13, 2017
Citing a DOJ spokesman, Natasha Bertrand of Business Insider reports that the former senator from Alabama is intentionally omitting meetings he had with Russian officials, including Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Per DOJ spox, Kislyak not listed b/c Sessions "was instructed not to list meetings" he had as Senator with foreign dignitaries & their staff
— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) July 13, 2017
But it is not clear Sessions was acting in his official capacity when he met with Kislyak during the campaign. As the Wall Street Journal has reported, one of Sessions’ meetings with Kislyak happened at the 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.
In the margin of the single-page disclosure released on Thursday, Sessions cites two statutory justifications for not disclosing information about his meetings with Russians. Both of them claim disclosure “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
In late May, CNN broke news that Sessions — arguably Trump’s highest-profile supporter in Congress during the campaign — didn’t disclose any meetings he had with Russian officials on a security clearance form he filed ahead of becoming attorney general, despite being required “to list ‘any contact’ he or his family had with a ‘foreign government’ or its ‘representatives’ over the past seven years.”
In March, Sessions recused himself from any investigations related to the Trump campaign after Justice Department officials told the Washington Post he had misled senators during his confirmation hearing about his meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Sessions had testified that he hadn’t communicated with Russians when he met with Kislyak on at least two occasions.
Despite his recusal, in May, Sessions signed off on the firing of then-FBI Director Director James Comey amid an active investigation into the Trump campaign for possible collusion with Russia.
During congressional testimony last month, Sessions characterized any suggestion he was involved in collusion with Russia as an “appalling and detestable lie.”
Sessions isn’t the only Trump official who has created problems for himself by not being transparent about his contacts with Russians.
Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr.
On Saturday, the New York Times cited revisions White House adviser Jared Kushner’s made to his own security clearance form in a story that broke news about the previously undisclosed June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Kushner, then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and a Russian lawyer.
“The Trump Tower meeting was not disclosed to government officials until recently, when Mr. Kushner, who is also a senior White House aide, filed a revised version of a form required to obtain a security clearance,” the Times reported. “The Times reported in April that he had failed to disclose any foreign contacts, including meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States and the head of a Russian state bank. Failure to report such contacts can result in a loss of access to classified information and even, if information is knowingly falsified or concealed, in imprisonment.”
Representatives of Trump Jr. initially told the Times that the Trump Tower meeting was “primarily about an adoption program.” But on Tuesday, Trump Jr. published emails showing that the Trump campaign was actually promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before the get-together.
Days before the meeting, the person who set it up — a Russia-connected music publicist named Rob Goldstone — wrote Trump Jr. and said, “The crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone continued, adding that “I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.” (Trump, through his lawyer, has denied any knowledge of the meeting.)
During an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity that aired Tuesday night, Trump Jr. wouldn’t rule out that he had other meetings during the campaign with Russians that the public doesn’t yet know about, saying he “probably met with other people from Russia.” Trump Jr. didn’t delve into details but said he didn’t expect further revelations to be damaging.
“This is everything,” he said.
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Kushner revised his security clearance form three times, adding more than 100 names to the list of contacts he had with foreigners.
In January, then-Vice President-Elect Mike Pence was asked during a CBS interview whether anyone from the Trump campaign had met with Russian agents.
“Of course not,” Pence replied. “And I think to suggest that is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.”
But in the wake of the revelations about Trump Jr.’s emails, a Pence spokesman is walking that back.
During a Fox News interview on Wednesday, Pence press secretary Marc Lotter was pressed about whether Pence himself met with representatives of Russia during the campaign. Lotter repeatedly dodged the question.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Lotter seemed to try and distance Pence from the scandal enveloping Trump Jr. and Kushner, saying Pence “was not aware of the meeting” with the Russian lawyer and is “not focused on stories about the campaign — especially those pertaining to the time before he joined the campaign.”
On Thursday, Lotter reversed course again, telling CNN in a carefully worded statement that despite his comments on Fox News the day before, Pence “had no meetings with individuals associated with the Russian government during the campaign or the transition.”