Leahy Statement On the Attorney General’s Russia-related testimony before the Senate

Over the past 10 months, the Attorney General has testified before the Senate on three occasions about his knowledge of and contacts with Russian operatives.  He also answered written questions and provided additional supplemental testimony.  But he still has not gotten his story straight.  On numerous occasions, new disclosures of his communications involving Russia have raised serious doubts about his testimony.  And not one of these disclosures has come from the Attorney General; all have come from the press or unsealed court records.  That is a problem.

This started in January.  At his nomination hearing both Senator Franken and I asked him about contacts with Russian officials.  I asked him in writing whether he had been in contact with anyone connected to the Russian government about the 2016 election.  It was not a tricky or surprising question.  Other Trump officials’ undisclosed contacts with Russians, like those of Michael Flynn or Jared Kushner, were major headlines at the time.  Under oath, then-Senator Sessions answered with a single word, “no.”  We soon learned that the answer was “yes”—just the opposite.

In March, the Washington Post reported that Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Kislyak on two occasions during the height of the 2016 campaign.  Days later, the Attorney General was forced to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.  In June, the press reported on a third undisclosed contact.  In July, despite the Attorney General’s previous assertions that he never discussed the campaign with Russian officials, U.S. intelligence intercepts reportedly revealed that he had done just that—discussing the campaign and its positions on Russia-related issues with the Russian ambassador.  When I asked the Attorney General about this report in the Judiciary Committee last month, his testimony shifted yet again; he acknowledged that it was “possible” he had those conversations.  That flatly contradicts his testimony to me in January.                                                       

And the disclosures show no sign of stopping.  Two weeks ago, unsealed court records revealed additional Russian connections that were discussed during a Trump campaign meeting in March 2016.  Then-Senator Sessions reportedly admonished those in attendance to not discuss the issue again out of fear it would leak to the press.  And just last week another foreign policy campaign aide testified that he informed Sessions of his planned trip to Russia in July 2016.  Once again, the descriptions of these communications are impossible to reconcile with the Attorney General’s testimony, in which he claimed under oath that he was not aware of any contact between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

The notion that the Attorney General is just forgetful is simply not believable.  Potential Russian involvement in our elections was a major story at the time.  In July 2016, then-candidate Trump encouraged Russia to commit espionage against his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, by stealing her emails.  That same week then-Senator Sessions told CNN that “people come up to [him] all the time” to talk about Russia hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails. Exactly who were all these people talking to him about Russia hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails?  And should he have disclosed any of these conversations to the Judiciary Committee?  We do not yet know.  Senator Durbin recently asked him this in a written question, and we look forward to his response.

I want another point to be clear:  I have never accused the Attorney General of colluding with Russia, and I am not doing so now.  But it is clear that the Kremlin tested the waters with then-Senator Sessions, as it did with so many other Trump campaign officials.  It is equally clear that the Attorney General concealed his own contacts with Russian officials, and he has failed to correct the record even when given multiple opportunities to do so.  I agree with Senators Graham, Franken, and others that he needs to come back once again to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  It is time we hear the whole story.                                                                                               

An important part of that story is what the Attorney General did on May 9th, the day President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.  To justify the dismissal, the president cited a Justice Department memorandum signed off by Attorney General Sessions.  The memo attempted to justify firing Director Comey because he treated Hillary Clinton unfairly during the email investigation.  We later learned there was an earlier, unsent letter that pointed to President Trump’s true motivation for firing Director Comey: the Russia investigation.  The day before the dismissal the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General were reportedly called into the White House to discuss the earlier letter.  The next day, May 9th, they delivered their own hastily drafted memo that provided the alternative justification for firing Director Comey.

Here’s the problem: The May 9th memo was a façade.  It was a pretext.  The White House needed to point to anything other than Russia to justify dismissing Director Comey, and the Attorney General obliged.  But the president could not keep the secret.  The very next morning, he boasted to Russian officials visiting the Oval Office that firing Director Comey took great pressure off of him from the Russia investigation.  Two days later, on national television, the president made clear what we all knew:  He fired the lead Russia investigator due to concerns over how he was handling the Russia investigation. 

Here is another problem:  Firing an investigator in order to stymie a legitimate investigation is a crime—it is called obstruction of justice.  Whether there is sufficient evidence to merit a charge of obstruction against the president will likely be revealed by Special Counsel Mueller.  If so, the Attorney General may have to admit the May 9th memo that he approved was nothing but a smokescreen—an attempt to mask an uncomfortable truth and excuse the inexcusable.  Prosecutors do not look kindly upon those who aid others in covering up crimes.

For many years I sat with Senator Sessions on the Judiciary Committee.  We disagreed on many policy issues, but I never questioned his commitment to the rule of law. I do question this president’s commitment to the rule of law.  This month alone President Trump repeatedly directed the Justice Department to target his political opponents and chase his conspiracy theories.  This is a president who needs to be told “no.”  May 9th was one of those moments.  I am greatly disappointed that Attorney General Sessions was not up to the task.  This is a solemn obligation that goes to the heart of what it means to be Attorney General—ensuring that no person, not even a president, is above the law.  He is not a Secretary of Justice, serving the president blindly and covering his flaws.  He is the Attorney General of the United States, serving the American people.  I fear Attorney General Sessions has lost sight of this distinction.

We are in the midst of perhaps the most serious national security investigation of our time. A foreign adversary attacked our democracy and our elections.  We know that Russia will be back.  If we are serious about preventing the next attack, we must know what happened during the last.  The American people deserve answers.  No more obfuscation.  No more falsehoods.  This starts with the Attorney General returning to the Senate Judiciary Committee to explain, in person, under oath, why he has not provided truthful, complete answers to some of the most pressing questions facing our nation today.        

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