- Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that he couldn’t recall ever raising concerns about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election in the meetings he had with Russia’s ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak last year.
Sessions has said that those meetings were in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But he demurred when Republican Sen. John McCain if he had ever raised concerns with Kislyak about “Russia’s interference in our electoral process.”
“I don’t recall that being discussed,” Sessions replied.
By the time Sessions met with Kislyak at the Republican National Convention in July, cyber security researchers had already confirmed that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee. And by the time Sessions met with Kislyak at his office in September, then-President Barack Obama had already commented on the Russian hacking campaign and hinted at what could have motivated it.
When McCain asked whether Sessions had ever discussed any issues of national security while meeting with Russian officials in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sessions again said he couldn’t remember. But he testified that he recalled “pushing back” on Russia’s actions in Ukraine when he met with Kislyak.
McCain, a Russia hawk who sat on the committee with Sessions, was skeptical: “Knowing you on the committee, I can’t imagine that,” he replied.
The exchange raises questions about why Sessions, who showed little interest in Russia while he was a senator, met with Kislyak at all during the election.
Sessions did not appear interested in foreign policy at all, according to officials who spoke to The Atlantic. A senior Republican staffer was reportedly incredulous when asked whether Sessions thought of himself as a foreign policy specialist and met regularly with ambassadors while he was a senator.
“Is that a serious question?” the staffer told the publication. “He’s clueless.”
McCain indicated as much when he asked whether Sessions had ever brought up or held hearings on Russia-related security issues in his capacity as the chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
“I don’t recall you as being particularly vocal on such issues,” McCain said.
Sessions appeared confused, choosing instead to respond to McCain’s earlier question about whether he ever discussed “Russia-related security issues” with Kislyak.
“We may have discussed that,” Sessions said. “I just don’t have a real recall of the meeting. I was not making a report about it to anyone. I just was basically willing to meet and see what he discussed.”
“And his response was?” McCain asked.
“I don’t recall,” Sessions said.
- Russian Embassy
It was still unclear by the end of the nearly three-hour hearing why Sessions met with Kislyak privately if not to address reports that Russia was engaged in a hacking campaign to undermine Democrats and, specifically, the party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Sessions’ lack of interest in the Russian meddling seems to have mirrored Trump’s lack of concern.
Former FBI Director James Comey, in a little-noticed moment during his Senate Intelligence Committee testimony last week, said Trump never once asked him about Russia’s interference in the US election as it related to national security during their nine conversations before he fired Comey in early May.
“Did the president, in any of those interactions that you’ve shared with us today, ask you what you should be doing, or what our government should be doing, or the intelligence community, to protect America against Russian interference in our election system?” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich asked Comey.
“I don’t recall a conversation like that,” Comey said.
Heinrich pressed: “Never?”
“No,” Comey said. “Not with President Trump. I attended a fair number of meetings on that with President Obama.”
Comey later said he didn’t recall ever having a conversation with Trump that suggested the president was taking the Russia threat seriously.
“I don’t remember any conversations with him at all about that,” Comey said.