Right Wing Watch has obtained a document from the FBI that calls into question Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ claims about why he failed to tell the FBI and the Senate Judiciary Committee about meetings with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 election.
After our organization, People For the American Way, successfully sued for the release of records involving the FBI’s instructions to Sessions as he was filling out his SF-86 security clearance form, the Justice Department sent the records to CNN. CNN reported that the released document, a single internal email from the FBI, “bolsters” Session’s account. But if you look at the email itself and at the timeline behind the events, it’s clear that there’s more to the story.
Sessions completed his SF-86 security clearance form on November 3, before the presidential election. In May, after it was reported that that he had omitted meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak from that form—meetings that he had also neglected to mention to the Senate Judiciary Committee—a Justice Department spokesman said that “In filling out the SF-86 form, the Attorney General’s staff consulted with those familiar with the process, as well as the FBI investigator handling the background check, and was instructed not to list meetings with foreign dignitaries and their staff connected with his Senate activities.”
But the email we obtained tells a different story. In the email, dated March 7, an unnamed FBI employee reports that he or she had spoken the previous day to an aide to Sessions, who had “inquired as to whether or not she previously asked [the FBI employee] if Senator Sessions needed to list foreign contacts on his SF-86 while on official government business when his background investigation was being conducted in December 2016.” The FBI employee responded that he or she did “not recall” having that conversation, but that “for purposes of the SF-86, [Sessions] was not required to list foreign government contacts while on official government business unless he developed personal relationships from such contacts.”
The March 6 call from Sessions’ office to the FBI came on the same day on which Sessions sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee defending his claim to the committee that he had not had contact with Russian officials during the Trump campaign.
So, while the Justice Department claims that Sessions asked the FBI when he was filling out his SF-86 whether to include contacts with foreign officials, the email in fact has all the appearances of an after-the-fact effort by Sessions’ staff to cover his tracks by seeking confirmation of a conversation that (1) the FBI employee in question didn’t remember having and (2) if it happened at all, took place in December, after Sessions had filled out his clearance form.
Of course, the question is still also open as to whether Sessions’ meetings with Kislyak constituted “official government business.” According to intercepted conversations, leaked to the Washington Post in July, Kislyak told his superiors in Moscow that he had discussed campaign-related matters with Sessions.
PFAW senior fellow Elliot Mincberg said in a press release: “This document raises more questions than it answers. If the FBI did not tell Sessions in 2016 to omit the conversations with Kislyak from his security clearance form, who did? Does the FBI think that Sessions’ conversations with Kislyak, at which he reportedly discussed campaign-related matters, were ‘official government business’? Did he cross the line into developing ‘personal relationships from such contacts’? Why did Sessions’ staff wait until Sessions was already confirmed to his position and facing criticism for his contradictory answers on these meetings to ask the FBI for this information? Sessions has been unwilling to provide clear answers on the extent and content of his contacts with Russian government officials during the presidential campaign, and this document does nothing to dispel that impression.”