The Washington Post’s report that Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke twice with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during the 2016 presidential campaign has made an exchange between Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken and Sessions during his confirmation hearing the focus of questions about whether Sessions misled Congress.
On January 10, in response to a question from Franken, Sessions said that he had no communications with the Russian government. Here is the exchange:
FRANKEN: OK. 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?
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.
Justice Department officials told the Post that “Sessions met with Kislyak on Sept. 8 in his capacity as a member of the armed services panel rather than in his role as a Trump campaign surrogate.” After the Post story broke Wednesday night, Sessions spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores released a statement from Sessions saying, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
Set aside for a moment the contradiction between Sessions having “no idea” what the allegation is about, but also knowing that it is false. The follow-up statement contains a qualification Sessions’s original testimony did not explicitly include. It says Sessions never met with Russian officials “to discuss issues of the campaign.” It does not say that Sessions did not recall his encounters with Kislyak, or that he did not meet with him, only that he did not discuss campaign issues with him.