Did Sessions Commit Perjury By Flatly Denying Russian Contacts?

This article first appeared on Just Security.

It is not crystal clear whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress about his knowledge of other Trump campaign members’ contacts with Russians during the 2016 election.

Intentionally making false statements to Congress is a felony. There are good reasons, however, to think it is a closer call than many appreciate whether Sessions ran afoul of these laws.

Two recent developments have given rise to the suggestion that Sessions’s statements to Congress were false. The first includes Sessions’s involvement at a meeting with George Papadopoulos in March 2016 when the foreign policy adviser told Sessions and others about his contacts with Russians.

The second involves Carter Page’s informing Sessions that he was leaving on his trip to Moscow in July 2016.

Narrowly conceived, those two events are at issue. More broadly, the question is whether there were more exchanges than the two isolated instances, since Papadopoulos continually kept “members of the campaign’s foreign policy team” informed of his ongoing and repeated contacts with Russians.

And Carter Page testified to the House Intelligence Committee that he informed the campaign about the results of his Moscow trip.

During these periods, Sessions was serving as chairman of Trump’s national security team. So he was presumably informed. That said, the devil is in the details.

GettyImages-869384798 Attorney General Jeff Sessions in New York on November 2, 2017 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty

Sessions is likely to face questions on this issue when he appears before the House Judiciary Committee for an oversight hearing on November 14:

Tweet from Ellen Nakashima:

House Judiciary will bring AG Sessions in for his first oversight hearing Nov. 14. Expect questions about his statements on Russia mtgs.

I. Sessions’s statements to Congress

Four statements that Sessions made during congressional testimony come closest to being contradicted by the Papadopoulos and Page revelations.

  1. Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing confirmation hearing for Attorney General, January 10, 2017:

FRANKEN: […] CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week …. 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?

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.

2. Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing on Russian Interference in the U.S. Election, June 13, 2017:

HARRIS: Are you aware of any communications with other Trump campaign officials and associates that they had with Russian officials or any Russian nationals?

SESSIONS: I don’t recall that.

3. Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Oversight of the Justice Department, October 18, 2017:

SESSIONS: Sen. Franken’s January 2017 question “was referring directly to the suggestion that there was a continuing exchange of information between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government, which did not happen, at least not to my knowledge, and not with me.”

4. Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Oversight of the Justice Department, October 18, 2017:

FRANKEN: You don’t believe that surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians? Is that what you’re saying?

SESSIONS: I did not and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened.

FRANKEN: And you don’t believe it now?

SESSIONS: I don’t believe it happened.

II. Comparing Sessions’ statements to the Papadopoulos and Page revelations

Papadopoulos’s plea statement directly implicates the Attorney General’s testimony in multiple ways.

First, after a March 24, 2016 meeting with Russians, Papadopoulos “emailed the Campaign Supervisor [Sam Clovis] and several members of the Campaign’s foreign policy team” informing them of his meeting. Second, during a March 31, 2016 national security group meeting with Sessions (and Donald Trump), “when defendant Papadopoulos introduced himself to the group, he stated, in sum and substance, that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin.”

CNN subsequently reported that it was Jeff Sessions who rejected Papadopoulos’s proposal for a meeting between Trump and Putin. In other words, Sessions played an active role in managing this issue. (Papadopoulos and Sessions reportedly also met at least a second time, shortly before the Republican convention where “Papadopoulos sat at the elbow of one of Trump’s top campaign advisers, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions.”)

Finally, Papadopoulos continued to keep the campaign informed including “multiple emails” to “members of the Campaign’s foreign policy team regarding his contacts” with the Russians.

Narrowly read, these reported facts do not directly contradict Sessions’s statements to Congress.

First, at the March 31 meeting, Papadopoulos may have referred only to past “connections” he had, and not the recent meetings with Russians since joining in the campaign. That would be somewhat unlikely since he informed the campaign of his contacts that month and appeared eager to boast or tell more about them. Importantly, Sessions will not know what else Papadopoulos disclosed to special counsel Bob Mueller’s team about the meeting.

What’s more, since other people recall details of the March 31 meeting, Sessions will also have a harder case to make that he doesn’t remember.

More importantly, it is an open question whether Sessions was among the “other members of the Campaign’s foreign policy team” whom Papadopoulos kept informed before and after the March 31 meeting, and, if Sessions was not directly included, whether members of the team informed Sessions given the extraordinary nature of Papadopoulos reported contacts with “Putin’s niece” and communications about overtures by the Russians.

Sessions might also claim that in his testimony he was referring only to a “continuing exchange” of contacts in one of his answers, and that he put a stop to Papadopoulos’s proposal at the meeting.

However, Sessions other responses to Senators Harris and Franken will be difficult to square with any evidence that emerges, or new admissions on Sessions’s part, showing he had knowledge of Papadopoulos’s communications.

In the past, Sessions has been able to claim that he thought prior questions were asking him whether he had contacts with Russians having to do with the campaign or with Russian interference. He will not be able to rest on that defense here.

In particular, Sen. Al Franken’s question in the most recent hearing in October pinned the Attorney General specifically to whether “surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians.”

Sessions is on stronger ground with respect to Carter Page. It should be added to the equation that Sen. Joe Manchin asked Sessions, “to the best of your knowledge,” did Page meet with “Russian officials at any point during the campaign.” Sessions replied, “I don’t know.”

Admittedly, it has now emerged in Page’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee that he did inform Sessions he was about to take a trip to Moscow. Sessions could likely rest on the idea that he did not consider Page’s trip to be part of the campaign (which is what Page testified he told Sessions).

Sessions has an even stronger defense on the general question of whether he knew Page had communications with the Russians. By the time Sessions appeared before the Senate in January 2017, it was widely reported that Page had made the trip to Russia, and Page had given multiple interviews to that effect.

Sessions was naturally not denying something that is open and common knowledge. He could persuasively say that the so-called revelation that Page informed him beforehand about the trip to Moscow adds nothing of significance to that persuasive explanation.

Sessions runs into difficulty, however, if he was aware of the email where Page told the campaign, “outreach I’ve received from a few Russian legislators and senior members of the Presidential administration here.”

It should be noted that Page also told the media as early as September 2016 that he briefly met with the Russian Deputy Prime Minister during the Moscow trip. But that is not close to the extensive contacts that the Page email suggests occurred.

As for Carter Page, this is one area where Sessions may be most legally exposed to perjury. And who knows what information Mueller’s team has in its possession.

Artin Afkhami is associate editor of Just Security.

Ryan Goodman is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. He served as Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-16).

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