Jeff Sessions met at least three times with a Russian ambassador as a member of the Trump campaign, according to a new report, and not as part of his duties as a U.S. senator.
The attorney general will testify Tuesday afternoon before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where lawmakers will likely ask why he did not disclose those meetings during his confirmations hearings.
Sessions confirmed two of those meetings after they were revealed by reporters, although he insists they were part of his official duties as a senator, but The Atlanticreported that he met with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak at least once more.
“All told, Sessions encountered Kislyak at least three times in five months,” reported The Atlantic‘s Julia Ioffe.
The meetings were among a series Sessions conducted with ambassadors and foreign policy experts, who understood his role to be that of a Trump campaign surrogate and not senator.
“That may seem semantic, but for Sessions, the distinction is crucial,” Ioffe reported. “He has insisted that he did not disclose the meeting with Kislyak in his testimony, because it was a routine part of his Senate duties.”
Sessions had no reputation for foreign policy before his crash course during the presidential campaign, and even Republicans were surprised that he emerged as a national security adviser for Trump.
“Is that a serious question?” said one Republican Senate staffer. “He’s clueless.”
Sessions met regularly with Central European and Baltic ambassadors during the campaign, although the White House insists they were part of his duties as a senior member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee.
But some of the diplomats who met with Sessions said his roles weren’t so clearly defined.
“He was double-headed all the time, so it was very hard to distinguish,” said one European diplomat who met with Sessions multiple times last year.
The Atlantic reports extensively on Trump’s first foreign policy speech, which took place April 27, 2016, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. — where Sessions and Trump both encountered Kislyak, who sat in the front row as the GOP candidate promised to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia.
The speech was organized by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, who has fallen under investigation himself for his own meetings with Kislyak and a Russian state-owned bank during the transition period.
A source with direct knowledge told The Atlantic that Trump’s Mayflower speech was written by Richard Burt, a lobbyist for McLarty and Associates who has represented Russian clients like Alfa Bank, which is under investigation by the FBI for a possible computer link to Trump Tower during the campaign.
Sessions set up a separate office to meet with foreign dignitaries, in order to comply with ethics guidelines, but he continued to invite ambassadors — including Kislyak — to his more impressive office at the Capitol, the magazine reported.
Those meetings abruptly ended three days after Trump’s election, with a Nov. 11 appointment with the German ambassador.