By Doug Porter
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, former Senator from Alabama, campaign advisor, and current Attorney General is generating the latest waft of smoke from the smoldering garbage fire, also known as the Trump administration’s Russia scandal.
During his nomination hearings, the then-Senator from Alabama failed to disclose two occasions when he met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to the Washington Post.
A New York Times story published today adds more fuel to the fire, saying European intelligence agencies warned the US about meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump.
The Wall Street Journal published a story saying the FBI was investigating Session’s potential ties to Russia as far back as last summer. The CIA, NSA, and Treasury Department were also involved in the investigation, which focused on possible conversations Sessions could have held with Russian officials while serving as Trump’s foreign policy adviser last spring.
Democrats and some Republicans are up in arms, and the words ‘recuse,’ ‘resign,’ and ‘special prosecutor’ are woven throughout their statements. The White House says it’s much ado about nothing, and Donald Trump is undoubtedly working on the next twitterstorm to distract attention away from the story.
— Elizabeth Drummond (@EADHistory) March 2, 2017
The Top Russian Spy Guy
CNN reports–and apparently everybody in unofficial Washington agrees– Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is in charge of all intelligence operations in the US for his country.
Kislyak was at the GOP convention in July as part of a fact-finding tour organized by the International Republican Institute, along with 200 foreign dignitaries and political operatives from roughly 100 nations, including Russia, Taiwan, South Korea, and Lebanon. Also included in the group were Britain’s Brexit-meister Nigel Farage and far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders.
The first encounter between Sessions and the Russian Ambassador was at a Heritage Foundation event during the convention. Nobody can remember details of that meeting. Days later, the Wikileaks documents lifted from the Democratic Party began oozing into public.
From the Washington Post:
On the first day of the Republican National Convention, the Heritage Foundation hosted a panel conversation addressing European relations that was attended by a number of ambassadors. “Much of the discussion focused on Russia’s incursions into Ukraine and Georgia,” moderator Victor Ashe later wrote, adding that “[s]everal ambassadors asked for names of people who might impact foreign policy under Trump.”
This appears to be the event after which Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak approached Sessions as part of a small group of foreign dignitaries. Sessions, The Post reports, “then spoke individually to some of the ambassadors, including Kislyak.”
The second encounter was a private meeting in Sen. Session’s office on September 8. The Alabama Senator’s position with the Armed Forces Committee is the justification now given in the press, although no other member of the Committee can recall ever having a private meeting with a foreign ambassador. (Such contacts would normally be in the purview of the Foreign Relations Committee.)
According to the Washington Post, “The subject of the meeting isn’t clear, but one official told NBC’s Hallie Jackson that during such meetings ambassadors would “often make superficial comments about election-related news.””
Twice during confirmation hearings, Sen. Sessions claimed he’d had no contact with the Russian government during the campaign, once in response to questions from Sen. Al Franken and a second time in correspondence with Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Video of Sessions under oath denying he had any contacts with the Russians during the campaign pic.twitter.com/cnbAP187dZ
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) March 2, 2017
A Race Against the Clock
The New York Times story confirms earlier reporting in Newsweek about the role European intelligence agencies in flagging suspicious contacts between surrogates for the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
But buried down inside this story are some astonishing accounts of the Obama administration’s actions to preserve the collection and analysis efforts of the various spy agencies. Apparently, they only reached the conclusion this information was a big deal in December.
As Inauguration Day approached, Obama White House officials grew convinced that the intelligence was damning and that they needed to ensure that as many people as possible inside government could see it, even if people without security clearances could not. Some officials began asking specific questions at intelligence briefings, knowing the answers would be archived and could be easily unearthed by investigators — including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which in early January announced an inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the election.
At intelligence agencies, there was a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low classification level to ensure as wide a readership as possible across the government — and, in some cases, among European allies. This allowed the upload of as much intelligence as possible to Intellipedia, a secret wiki used by American analysts to share information….
…The opposite happened with the most sensitive intelligence, including the names of sources and the identities of foreigners who were regularly monitored. Officials tightened the already small number of people who could access that information. They knew the information could not be kept from the new president or his top advisers, but wanted to narrow the number of people who might see the information, officials said.
More than a half-dozen current and former officials described various aspects of the effort to preserve and distribute the intelligence, and some said they were speaking to draw attention to the material and ensure proper investigation by Congress. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified information, nearly all of which remains secret, making an independent public assessment of the competing Obama and Trump administration claims impossible.
It’s the Cover-Up?
How big of a deal is this? I’m not sure it will ever be proved that contacts between the Trump campaign and a foreign power were part of an organized conspiracy. It’s more likely both sides had agendas and were hoping to use the other to further them.
Trump fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after it emerged that the retired lieutenant general had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with the Russian Ambassador before Trump’s swearing-in on Jan. 20, and then misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
Sessions failed to fully or accurately disclose contacts with Russian officials before and after the campaign. However, he hasn’t been accused of lying within the administration.
As we’ve seen with Messrs. Tillerson, Mnuchin, Price, Pruitt, and DeVos, lying during confirmation hearings is perfectly acceptable.
UPDATE: Maybe not…
But… as Judd Legum says at Talking Points Memo:
We’ve all heard the old saw: It’s never the crime, it’s the cover-up. This is almost never true. Covering scandals for any length of time is enough to tell you that. People are generally able to make judgments about how much trouble they’re in. We think the ‘cover up’ is worse than the crime because it’s actually very seldom that the full scope of the actual crime is ever known. The cover up works better than you think. The other reason the cover up is a logical response is that it usually works. You only find out about it when it doesn’t. So it’s a good bet.
Astronomers can’t see black holes directly. They map them by their event horizon and their effect on nearby stars and stellar matter. We can’t see yet what’s at the center of the Trump/Russia black hole. But we can tell a lot about its magnitude by the scope of the event horizon and the degree of its gravitational pull, which is immense.
BREAKING: House Intelligence chairman: We still have no evidence of improper contacts with Russian officials.
— The Associated Press (@AP) March 2, 2017
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