The FBI did not inform the Senate Judiciary Committee about its investigation into Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 election, a spokesman for a Republican member of the committee said Thursday.
“We learned of it last night,” the spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee said in an email, referring to an investigation first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The Journal reported Wednesday that the FBI opened an inquiry into contacts Sessions may have had with Russian officials in the spring and summer of last year. It was part of a wide-ranging investigation into possible contacts between Trump associates and Russian operatives. It is unclear whether Sessions’ contact is still being examined.
Lee’s spokesman said the FBI had not yet offered an explanation for why it did not inform the Judiciary Committee about the investigation before Sessions’ January confirmation hearing. The person said the senator learned of the investigation through news reports Wednesday evening.
Sessions denied in the hearing that he had ever communicated with any Russian officials while he was a top Trump campaign surrogate. But reports emerged Wednesday that he met with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, at least twice last year – once at an event timed to the Republican National Convention and again in September. There are conflicting reports about whether the September conversation happened in Sessions’ office or by phone.
A representative of Sessions said both instances were in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and not as a surrogate for Trump. In a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Sessions recused himself from any inquiry into ties between Trump’s campaign team and Russia during the election.
Sessions insisted, however, that he “never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.”
Matthew Miller, the director of public affairs for the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder, said the FBI is typically expected to share information about investigations into a nominee before senators vote on their confirmation.
“The typical process is that the FBI conducts background checks on nominees, and if there is an ongoing FBI investigation into that person, the information is shared with the White House counsel’s office and the relevant Senate committee before their vote,” Miller said.
The relevant Senate committee, in Sessions’ case, would have been the Senate Judiciary Committee, in front of which his confirmation hearing was held. But at least one member is insisting that the investigation was not revealed before the confirmation hearing, a claim that aligns with the lack of direct questions to Sessions about any contacts he may have had with Russian officials while he was a Trump campaign surrogate.
Instead, Sen. Al Franken asked Sessions what Sessions would do as attorney general if he found evidence that “anyone affiliated with the Russian government” communicated with the Trump campaign during the election. Sessions responded that he was “not aware of any of those activities” and “did not have any communications with the Russians.”
Information about the FBI investigation could be relevant to Sessions’ ability to lead an unbiased investigation into Russian attempts to undermine the 2016 election. But it is far from certain that the committee members would have considered the information disqualifying.
“He was simply doing his job,” Sen. Ted Cruz, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said of Sessions on MSNBC on Thursday.
But Miller said “the Senate is supposed to have all of the relevant information before voting on a nominee, and it’s clear they didn’t in this instance.”
Miller gave two potential reasons the FBI wouldn’t have shared its findings with the committee: Either the FBI didn’t find the conversations relevant or there was a lapse in communication within the bureau.
“It is possible the FBI looked at the meetings, but it didn’t rise to the level of an investigation that they felt was relevant to notify, or it’s possible that the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing,” Miller said, adding that the agents conducting Sessions’ background check may not have been aware of the ongoing investigation.
Lee’s office was the only of any senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee to return requests for comment about whether the committee was briefed on the investigation before Sessions’ hearing.
The FBI declined to comment. Trump told reporters on Thursday that he still had “total” confidence in Sessions.