Undisclosed meeting of Jeff Sessions and Sergey Kislyak

Event Date

Sessions faced partisan opposition from Democratic members of the United States Senate during his confirmation hearing in January 2017. Sessions was asked by Senators about meetings he took with Russian officials during the campaign. then-U.S. Senator Al Franken about meetings with Russian officials during the campaign. The transcription of the exchange:

Sen. Al Franken: CNN has just published a story and I'm telling you this about a news story that's just been published. I'm not expecting you to know whether or not it's true or not. But CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, "Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump." These documents also allegedly say quote, "There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government."

Now, again, I'm telling you this as it's coming out, so you know. But if it's true, it's obviously extremely serious and 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?

Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions: Senator Franken, I'm 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.

Franken: Very well. Without divulging sensitive information, do you know about this or know what compromising personal and financial information the Russians claim to have?

Sessions: Senator Franken, allegations get made about candidates all the time and they've been made about president-elect Trump a lot sometimes. Most of them, virtually all of them have been proven to be exaggerated and untrue. I would just say to you that I have no information about this matter. I have not been in on the classified briefings and I'm not a member of the intelligence committee, and I'm just not able to give you any comment on it at this time.

Additional information about meetings Jeff Sessions held with Russian officials spilled into U.S. politics.  Sessions had met with Kislyak during the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2017. The Wall Street Journal reported Sessions' attendance at the convention was as a United States Senator, not as a campaign surrogate or campaign official in any capacity.  Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and USA Today reported investigators had questioned Sessions about his contacts with Russian officials during the 2017 campaign. The day after the WaPo report, Sessions said the meetings were attended by himself and two or three other staffers. They “listened to the ambassador and what his concerns might be.” The topics purportedly discussed by Sessions, staffers, and Russian officials, included travel to Russia, terrorism and Ukraine. “I don’t recall any specific political discussions.”

Sessions' spokesperson responded to criticisms levied and said in 2016 Sessions had more than twenty-five conversations with foreign officials as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, including the Australian, British, Canadian, Chinese, German, Indian, Japanese, Korean, and Polish ambassadors, in addition to Kislyak.  In the case of the September 2016 meeting, one Justice department official said, “There’s just not strong recollection of what was said.”  The Russian ambassador never responded to requests for comment about his contacts with Sessions.

The Washington Post, in its report from March 1, 2017, noted the paper had contacted the twenty-six members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and asked whether any lawmakers other than Sessions met with Kislyak. The twenty respondents said they had not met with the Russian ambassador in 2016.  “Members of the committee have not been beating a path to Kislyak’s door,” said a senior Senate Armed Services Committee staffer and cited tensions in relations with Moscow. Besides Sessions, the staffer added, “There haven’t been a ton of members who are looking to meet with Kislyak for their committee duties.”

Sessions announced his recusal when he issued a press release on the Department of Justice website. The press release said, in part,

Having concluded [discussions about recusal with Senior career officials] today, I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.

Sessions insisted his testimony to congress was "correct" in that he had no communications with Russians during the campaign.