TEL AVIV — Citing alleged U.S. intelligence intercepts leaked by current and former U.S. officials, the Washington Post reported that Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak told his superiors at the Kremlin that he discussed issues related to the 2016 presidential campaign with Jeff Sessions, despite the attorney general’s assertions to the contrary.
The Post article, published last Friday, was used by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to call on Sessions to once again testify before the panel, this time to answer claims made in the Post piece.
The article is titled, “Sessions discussed Trump campaign-related matters with Russian ambassador, U.S. intelligence intercepts show.”
The piece contains misleading information, omits key details that may discredit the article’s major assertions, and relies on possibly distorted intercepts as the basis for the central charges.
Here, in no particular order, are five major problems with the highly cited Washington Post article.
1 – The charge relies on allegedly intercepted communications regarding Kislyak’s description of meetings with Sessions, even though Russian diplomats are known to mislead in such communiques.
The title of the Washington Post article leaves out that the intercepts, as the article itself relates, are purportedly Kislyak’s own accounts of two conversations that the envoy said he had with Sessions. The intercepts are not the recordings of the two alleged meetings between Sessions and Kislyak during the campaign, one in April at a Trump foreign policy speech at the Mayflower hotel and a second on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in July.
Citing leaked information purportedly contained in the intercepts, a former official told the newspaper the data indicates that Sessions and Kislyak engaged in “substantive” discussions on policy matters pertaining to a future Trump administration, including the billionaire’s positions on Russia and possibilities for U.S.-Russia relations under a Trump presidency.
Russian officials in the U.S. routinely mislead in their reports to the Kremlin since they reportedly expect that their communications are being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Later in the article, the Washington Post conceded that this might be the case:
Officials emphasized that the information contradicting Sessions comes from U.S. intelligence on Kislyak’s communications with the Kremlin, and they acknowledged that the Russian ambassador could have mischaracterized or exaggerated the nature of his interactions.
Russian and other foreign diplomats in Washington and elsewhere have been known, at times, to report false or misleading information to bolster their standing with their superiors or to confuse U.S. intelligence agencies.
However, the newspaper quoted anonymous U.S. officials who say they are familiar with such intelligence intercepts and that Kislyak was known to have accurately conveyed details.
The Post did not tell readers that in June 13 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions said that in one of the meetings with Kislyak, he raised concerns about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimea.
“I did, Senator McCain, and I would like to follow up a little bit on that,” Sessions stated when asked by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) if those subjects were discussed with Kislyak. “That’s one of the meetings — that’s one of the issues that I recall explicitly. The day before my meeting with the Russian ambassador, I’d met with the Ukrainian ambassador, and I heard his concerns about Russia, and so I raised those with Mr. Kislyak, and he gave, as you can imagine, not one inch. Everything they did, the Russians had done, according to him was correct, and I remember pushing back on it, and it was a bit testy on that subject.”
2 – The Post omits key information making any substantive talks at the Mayflower hotel unlikely.
One of the meetings between Kislyak and Sessions purportedly detailed by the Russian ambassador in the intercepted intelligence took place in April at the Mayflower hotel in Washington, where Trump gave his first major foreign policy speech. Kislyak was one of four foreign ambassadors invited by the non-partisan think-tank that hosted the event, which included a brief pre-speech reception.
The Post plays up the possibility that Kislyak and Sessions held a substantive conversation at the hotel on the sidelines of the event, while failing to report on key details that make such communication unlikely even if Kislyak claimed otherwise in any alleged intercepts.
The Post reports:
Kislyak also reported having a conversation with Sessions in April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where then-candidate Trump delivered his first major foreign policy address, according to the officials familiar with intelligence on Kislyak. …
Comey would not provide details of what information the FBI had, except to say that he could discuss it only privately with the senators. Current and former officials said he appeared to be alluding to intelligence on Kislyak’s account of an encounter with Sessions at the Mayflower.
Senate Democrats later called on the FBI to investigate the event in April at the Mayflower hotel.
The Post omits several key details about Trump’s speech at the Mayflower hotel, most notably a statement from the organizers of the event detailing how any extensive conversation between Sessions and Kislyak would have been, in the words of the organizer, “unlikely.”
The Center for the National Interest, the non-partisan organization that hosted the Trump speech, released the following statement (emphasis added):
The Center for the National Interest extended equal treatment to the four ambassadors attending the event and invited each to a short reception prior to Mr. Trump’s speech. The reception included approximately two dozen guests in a receiving line. The line moved quickly and any conversations with Mr. Trump in that setting were inherently brief and could not be private. Our recollection is that the interaction between Mr. Trump and Ambassador Kislyak was limited to the polite exchange of pleasantries appropriate on such occasions.
We are not aware of any conversation between Ambassador Kislyak and Senator Jeff Sessions at the reception. However, in a small group setting like this one, we consider it unlikely that anyone could have engaged in a meaningful private conversation without drawing attention from others present.
The statement further affirmed that, as the hosts, they “decided whom to invite and then issued the invitations. The Trump campaign did not determine or approve the invitation list.” Nor did the Trump campaign determine where the guests were placed at the event.
The Post also did not reference Session’s June 13 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in which he detailed what he says happened at the Mayflower. He stated that he did not attend “any meetings separately” prior to Trump’s foreign policy speech at the Mayflower.
Asked specifically by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) whether there was “ever a private room setting that you were involved in,” Sessions replied in the negative.
“No, other than the reception area that was shut off from I guess the main crowd,” Sessions responded.
Regarding the possibility that he may have had a brief encounter with Kislyak, Sessions stated, “I didn’t have any formal meeting with him. I’m confident of that, but I may have had an encounter during the reception. That’s the only thing I cannot say with certainty I did not. That’s all I can say.”
Sessions said that he had a conversation with another foreign diplomat there: “I remember one in particular that we had a conversation with, whose country had an investment in Alabama, and we talked a little length about that, I remember that, but otherwise I have no recollection of a discussion with the Russian ambassador.”
Sessions related that a Senate legislative director “who was a retired U.S. Army colonel, had served on the armed services staff with Senator John Warner before she joined my staff, was with me in the reception area and throughout the rest of the events.”
Sessions further recalled the reception just before the speech:
I attended a reception with my staff, that included at least two dozen people and President Trump, though I do recall several conversations I had during that pre-speech reception, and I do not have a recollection of meeting or talking to the Russian ambassador or any other Russian officials. If any brief interaction occurred in passing with the Russian ambassador in that reception, I do not remember it. After the speech, I was interviewed by the news media. There was an area for that in a different room and then I left the hotel. Whether I attended a reception where the Russian ambassador was also present is entirely beside the point of this investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
The prospects for a substantive meeting between Sessions and Kislyak at the Mayflower event were so low that the suggestion was mocked by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) at the same June 13 hearing, where Cotton jested:
Have you ever ever in any of these fantastical situations heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?
3 and 4 – The Post omits Sessions’ explanation for why he recused himself from the Russia probe, which challenges the newspaper’s claim that its own reporting was behind the recusal. Also, the newspaper leaves out that Sessions’ stated timeline of his decision to recuse himself, backed up by emails, shows the decision goes back almost a month before the publication of a Post story that the newspaper claims motivated his recusal.
The Washington Post claims that its own reporting about Sessions’ contacts with Russian officials was the reason the Attorney General recused himself in March from the Russia probe.
The newspaper states:
Sessions removed himself from direct involvement in the Russia investigation after it was revealed in the Washington Post that he had met with Kislyak at least twice in 2016, contacts he failed to disclose during his confirmation hearing in January.
The Post was referring to a March 1 article, titled, “Sessions met with Russian envoy twice last year, encounters he later did not disclose,” in which the newspaper cited anonymous Justice Department officials.
The Post entirely ignored Sessions’ own stated reason for recusing himself. The attorney general said that Justice Department rules specifically bar an employee from participating in investigations if the employee had a personal or political relationship with the subject or subjects of the investigation. This means the very nature of Sessions’ involvement in the Trump campaign bars him from participating in any investigation related to that campaign, according to the stipulation cited by Sessions.
At the June 13 testimony, Sessions read from the particular Justice Department bylaw when asked why he recused himself:
The specific reason, chairman, is a cfr code of federal regulations put out by the Department of Justice. Part of the Department of Justice rules and it says this. I will read from it: “28 cfr 45.2. Unless authorized, no employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he had a personal or political relationship with any person involved in the conduct of an investigation” that goes on to say for a political campaign and it says if you have a close identification with an elected official or candidate arising from service as a principal adviser, you should not participate in an investigation of that campaign. Many have suggested that my recusal is because I felt I was a subject of the investigation myself, I may have done something wrong. This is the reason I recused myself: I felt I was required to under the rules of the Department of Justice and as a leader of the Department of Justice, I should comply with the rules obviously.
The Post further omitted that Sessions’ own timeline of events, which include emails, demonstrate that he decided to recuse himself immediately after he was sworn in on February 9, almost four weeks before the publication of the Post’s story about Sessions’ two contacts with Russian officials.
I have a timeline of what occurred. I was sworn in on the 9th, I believe, of February. I then on the 10th had my first meeting to generally discuss this issue where the cfr was not discussed. We had several other meetings and it became clear to me over time that I qualified as a significant, principal adviser-type person to the campaign and it was the appropriate and right thing for me.
The Post further omits that Sessions stated in the hearing that he essentially recused himself the day he started his attorney general job, still almost a month before the Post’s story that the newspaper claimed prompted Sessions’ recusal. Sessions said upon taking office, “I never accessed files. I never learned the names of investigators. I never met with them. I never asked for any documentation.”
5 – The Post omits key information related to former FBI Director James Comey’s assertion that he believed Sessions’ involvement in the Russia probe may have been “problematic.”
At a June 8 hearing, Comey claimed this about Sessions’ involvement with the Russia probe: “We were also aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
The Post relates that Comey’s charge was linked to Sessions’ possible encounter with Kislyak at the Mayflower hotel:
Former FBI director James B. Comey fueled speculation about the possibility of a Sessions-Kislyak meeting at the Mayflower when he told the same Senate committee on June 8 that the FBI had information about Sessions that would have made it “problematic” for him to be involved in overseeing the Russia probe.
However, the newspaper failed to inform readers that Comey may have been aware of the Justice Department’s bylaw that Sessions listed as his reason for recusing himself. And the newspaper did not report that Sessions stated at the June 13 hearing that the Justice Department “probably” communicated with Comey’s FBI on the issue.
The following is the relevant part of the hearing transcript:
BURR: This could explain Director Comey’s comments that he knew there was a likelihood you would recuse yourself because he was familiar with the same statute?
SESSIONS: Probably so. I’m sure that the attorneys in the Department of Justice probably communicated with him. Mr. Chairman, let me say this to you clearly. In effect as a matter of fact, I recused myself that day. I never received any information about the campaign. I thought there was a problem with me being able to serve as attorney general over this issue and I felt I would have to recuse myself and I took the position correctly, I believe, not to involve myself in the campaign in any way and I did not.
BURR: You made a reference to the chief of staff sending out an email immediately notifying internationally of your decision to recuse. Would you ask the staff to make that email available?
SESSIONS: We would be pleased to do so and I have it with me now.
BURR: Thank you. Have you had intersections with the special counsel Robert Muller?
SESSIONS: I have not. With regard to the email we sent out, director Comey indicated that he did not know when I recused myself or received notice, one of them went to him by name. A lot happens in our offices. I’m not accusing him of wrongdoing and it was sent to him and to his name.
Later in the hearing, Sessions indicated he thought Comey was engaging in “innuendo” when he made the comments about the attorney general’s involvement in the Russia probe:
WYDEN: The question is, Mr. Comey said there were matters with respect to the recusal that were problematic and he couldn’t talk about them. What are they?
SESSIONS: Why don’t you tell me. There are none, Senator Wyden. There are none. I can tell you that for absolute certainty. This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it. I try to give my best and truthful answers to any committee I’ve appeared before, and it’s really — people are suggesting through innuendo that I have been not honest about matters, and I’ve tried to be honest.
Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and senior investigative reporter. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.
This article was written with research by Joshua Klein.