- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. last year, when he was a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a prominent supporter of then-candidate Donald Trump, according to the Justice Department.

The disclosure, which appears to contradict Mr. Sessions’ testimony during confirmation hearings, added fuel to the push for a special prosecutor to investigate Russian meddling in the presidential election and possible links to President Trump’s campaign, and sparked new calls for Mr. Sessions to recuse himself from the ongoing FBI probe.

Mr. Sessions on Thursday disputed the characterization that he lied when he told Congress he had not been in contact with Russian officials.

“I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false,” Mr. Sessions said in a statement.

Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said the senator was asked during hearings “about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign — not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee.”

“There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” she said, adding that Mr. Sessions had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors last year as a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Lawmakers saw the characterization differently.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show Thursday that Mr. Sessions should recuse himself from the investigations.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi went a step further, calling for Mr. Sessions’ resignation.

“Jeff Sessions lied under oath during his confirmation hearing before the Senate. Under penalty of perjury, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, ‘I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.’ We now know that statement is false,” the California Democrat said in a statement.

“Now, after lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the Attorney General must resign. Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign,” she said.

Mr. Sessions, speaking to NBC News on Thursday morning, said he was open to recusal in a case that warranted it — a similar comment to what the attorney general had said when asked Monday by reporters about recusal from any investigation involving Russia.

“I have said whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself. There’s no doubt about that,” Mr. Sessions told NBC News.

A White House official dismissed the calls for resignation as “the latest attack against the Trump Administration by partisan Democrats.”

Mr. Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak once at his Senate office in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a second time in a group setting with other ambassadors following a Heritage Foundation speech, according to the Justice Department.

The contact with Mr. Kislyak, which was first reported by The Washington Post, was the height of alleged Russian email hacking that U.S. intelligence officials said was aimed at influencing the election by hurting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and therefore benefiting Mr. Trump.

During the Senate office meeting, a Justice Department official said the two “discussed relations between the two countries and any positive or negative issues they were facing.”

The officials said that during 2016, “ambassadors would often make superficial comments about election-related news, but it was not the substance of their discussion.”

The Heritage meeting followed a presentation Mr. Sessions gave to a group of more than 50 ambassadors, after which he was approached by a small group, according to a Justice Department official. The Russian ambassador was part of the group to which Mr. Sessions spoke. The DOJ official said during the conversation that the “ambassadors expressed appreciation for his remarks and made invitations for the Senator to join them at various events they were sponsoring” but that Mr. Sessions did not commit to any further meetings at that point.

Mr. Sessions failed to disclose the meetings when asked about contact with Russia during Senate confirmation hearings for his job as the country’s top law enforcement officer.

During the confirmation hearing, Sen. Al Franken asked Mr. Sessions, “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?”

Mr. Sessions replied that he was “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,” he said at the time.

Sen. Patrick Leahy also asked Mr. Sessions about contacts with the Russian government in written follow-up questions after the hearing.

“Several of the President-Elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” the Vermont Democrat wrote.

Mr. Sessions gave a one-word reply: No.

The White House officials echoed the Justice Department’s claim that the answers were truthful because the meetings were held as part of Mr. Sessions duties on the Senate Armed Services Committee and not on behalf of the Trump campaign.

“Attorney General Sessions met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony. It’s no surprise Senator Al Franken is pushing this story immediately following President Trump’s successful address to the nation,” a White House official said.

That explanation wasn’t dissuading protesters, who gathered Thursday outside the Justice Department to call on Mr. Session to resign.

In between brief speeches from members of MoveOn.org and lawmakers on the Congressional Progressive Caucus, demonstrators held up signs with the word “Resign” and chanted, “Fire Sessions if he won’t step down.”

The groups are sending a letter to Mr. Trump asking him to request Mr. Sessions’ resignation.

Retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn was forced to resign as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser after it was revealed that he misled other White House officials about his conversations during with Mr. Kislyak during the transition, when he discussed U.S. sanctions against Moscow.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the report raised more questions about Mr. Sessions ability to be impartial in overseeing the Justice Department probe.

“If reports are accurate that Attorney General Sessions — a prominent surrogate for Donald Trump — met with Ambassador Kislyak during the campaign, and failed to disclose this fact during his confirmation, it is essential that he recuse himself from any role in the investigation of Trump campaign ties to the Russians. This is not even a close call; it is a must,” Mr. Schiff said.

The House Intelligence Committee is conducting its own investigation into the Russian affair. The committee chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, said Monday that he has not seen a scrap of evidence that Trump campaign officials had any contact with Russian intelligence officers, as has been alleged.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, also called for Mr. Sessions to immediately resign.

Mr. Cummings said that it is inconceivable that Mr. Sessions kept quiet about his contact for weeks after Mr. Flynn’s ouster.

“When Senator Sessions testified under oath that ‘I did not have communications with the Russians,’ his statement was demonstrably false, yet he let it stand for weeks — and he continued to let it stand even as he watched the President tell the entire nation he didn’t know anything about anyone advising his campaign talking to the Russians,” he said. “Attorney General Sessions should resign immediately, and there is no longer any question that we need a truly independent commission to investigate this issue.”

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