Facing growing pressure over the revelation that he failed to disclose two meetings with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 presidential campaign, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his backers are arguing that those meetings occurred in his capacity as a senator and not as a surrogate for Donald Trump.
“He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign—not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee,” Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores told the Washington Post Wednesday.
Yet Sessions was clearly identified as a senior adviser to the Trump campaign ahead of the first of his meetings with the ambassador, and his ties to Trump world are deep and far-reaching. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump; served as chairman of his national security advisory committee; is seen as an intellectual godfather of key Trump administration policies, like the travel ban against citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries; was a frequent presence at Trump Tower during the post-election transition to the White House; and loaned key members of his senior staff to the Trump campaign, several of whom ended up with plum roles in the administration.
The intertwining of the Trump campaign and Sessions’ office doesn’t quite square with how he described the relationship in his testimony before Congress.
Asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) during his Jan. 10 confirmation hearing how he would act if he learned that “anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign” was in touch with the Russian government during the campaign, Sessions denied personally doing so.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he said. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Sessions also responded to a written question from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asking if he was “in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election” with one word: “No.”
The Washington Post on Wednesday reported that Sessions in fact met twice with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, first at a July event during the Republican National Convention and then in September at his Capitol Hill office.
It’s not clear what was discussed during those meetings, and there’s no evidence suggesting Sessions discussed the campaign with the ambassador. But Sessions’ closeness with Trump’s team was well documented by the time the meetings occurred.
The former Alabama senator was joining Trump at rallies, wearing one of his signature “Make America Great Again” caps, as early as August 2015, before he formally endorsed the candidate in February 2016. Sessions was named chair of Trump’s national security advisory committee days later.
Sessions also helped build out Trump’s lean campaign apparatus by lending members of his staff to help devise a comprehensive policy platform for the candidate.
Longtime Sessions ally Stephen Miller actually left his post as the then-senator’s communications director in January 2016 to join the Trump campaign. Miller now serves as senior adviser to to the President for policy, penning major policy speeches and coordinating the rollout of a tide of executive orders with Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon.
While serving as Sessions’ chief of staff, Rick Dearborn, now the White House deputy chief of staff, co-ran Trump’s policy shop from a Washington, D.C. office (An anonymous source told Politico that Dearborn was the one who brought on Carter Page, one of the Trump associates alleged to have been in contact with Russian officials during the campaign, but a second source disputed that to the publication.)
The Trump team openly admits that it saw Sessions, a two-decade veteran of Congress, as its sherpa along the path to legitimacy on Capitol Hill.
“Sessions has been the fiercest, most dedicated, and most loyal promoter in Congress of Trump’s agenda, and has played a critical role as the clearinghouse for policy and philosophy,” Bannon told the Washington Post in January.
“Jeff was one of my earliest supporters and the fact that he is so highly respected by everyone in both Washington, D.C., and around the country was a tremendous asset to me throughout the campaign,” Trump said in the same Post story.
It was in his capacity as a key Trump surrogate that Sessions was introduced at a July event in Cleveland, held by the Heritage Foundation and State Department, where he first spoke with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.
According to Politico, Sessions was “clearly identified as a senior national security adviser to Trump” before giving a keynote luncheon address. Kislyak was among several foreign ambassadors who walked up to Sessions after the event to chat.
The second meeting between Sessions and Kislyak occurred on Sep. 8, while the FBI was investigating Russian interference in the U.S. election and after reports were published alleging that Russia had stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee’s computer servers.
Sessions repeated to NBC News on Thursday that he did not meet “with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign,” insisting that the meeting occurred in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
His defenders, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), have said it was well within Sessions’ purview as a senator to meet with foreign ambassadors. At least 20 other members of the 26-person committee told the Washington Post they never met with Kislyak during the 2016 race, however.
What’s clear is that by the time Sessions hosted Kislyak in his office in September, it was difficult to see where Sessions’ role as a senator ended and his role as a Trump surrogate began.