President Donald Trump and senior Democrats joined in blaming Barack Obama for not doing more to stop Russia interfering with the 2016 presidential election.
In an early morning tweet, Trump appeared to acknowledge that Russia had meddled in the election. He has previously decried multiple investigations into alleged collusion between his officials and Russia as a “witch hunt.”
Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as well as House and Senate committees, are investigating Russia’s interference in the election and the alleged complicity of Trump officials. The president encouraged greater scrutiny of the Obama administration, tweeting Thursday: “By the way, if Russia was working so hard on the 2016 Election, it all took place during the Obama Admin. Why didn’t they stop them?”
Trump’s Democrat rivals also criticized the former president on Friday, after the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence briefed Obama in August that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally ordered a campaign of interference to help elect Trump.
Democrat Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, criticized Obama for being excessively cautious.
“(The response) was inadequate. I think (the administration) could have done a better job informing the American people of the extent of the attack,” he said.
Others accused Obama for failing to sufficiently sanction Russia once the election was over and the Trump administration was preparing to take power.
In October, the Obama administration accused Russia of hacking emails from Democratic Party servers in an attempt to discredit Hillary Clinton and sway the election. Two months later, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. in retaliation for the hacking, but, according to the Post report, the administration ruled out releasing information potentially embarrassing to Putin or enacting harsher sanctions. Democrat Jim Himes, another House Intelligence member, called the penalties “barely a slap on the wrist.”
In a previously undisclosed measure, the Post reported that Obama also authorized cyber attacks against Russian infrastructure when he left office in January.
In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, former director of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said evidence of Russian hacking had been uncovered by the FBI last August, but said the Obama administration was reluctant to respond for fear of being accused of partisan attempts to influence the course of the 2016 election.
According to the Post, Obama and key advisers were concerned that Russia could launch a potentially crippling attack on U.S. voting systems before Election Day.
BRUSSELS — President Trump on Thursday punctured any illusions that he was on a fence-mending tour of Europe, declining to explicitly endorse NATO’s mutual defense pledge and lashing out at fellow members for what he called their “chronic underpayments” to the alliance.On a tense day when Mr. Trump brought the “America first” themes of his presidential campaign to the very heart of Europe, he left European leaders visibly unsettled, with some openly lamenting divisions with the United States on trade, climate and the best way to confront Russia.
The discord was palpable even in the body language. When Mr. Trump greeted Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, the two leaders, jaws clenched, grabbed each other’s hands in an extended grip that turned Mr. Trump’s knuckles white. When the leaders lined up to pose for the traditional photograph of leaders at NATO headquarters, Mr. Trump appeared to push aside the Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic, to get to his assigned place in the front.
The split was starkest at NATO headquarters, where Mr. Trump used the dedication of a soaring new building to lecture allies on their financial contributions. Far from robustly reaffirming NATO’s mutual defense commitment in the way that many members hoped he would, Mr. Trump repeated his complaint that the United States was shouldering an unfair burden.
“Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense,” Mr. Trump declared, as the leaders shifted uncomfortably behind him, shooting one another sidelong glances.
“This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States,” he added. “And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years.”
Standing before a large piece of twisted wreckage from the World Trade Center that will serve as a memorial at the headquarters, Mr. Trump promised to “never forsake the friends that stood by our side” in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks — a pledge that White House officials later said amounted to an affirmation of mutual defense.
But to European allies, Mr. Trump’s words fell far short of an explicit affirmation of NATO’s Article 5 clause, the “one-for-all, all-for-one” principle that has been the foundation of NATO since its establishment 68 years ago, after World War II.
“I think he was stingy with the U.S. commitment and very generous with his criticisms,” said Fabrice Pothier, a former head of policy planning at NATO and a senior associate at Rasmussen Global, a political consulting firm.
Emmanuel Macron of France at the United States Embassy in Brussels.White House officials said Mr. Trump’s message on financial contributions had galvanized NATO to confront the issue of financial contributions. At a closed meeting after his speech, they said, the leaders unanimously approved a resolution on burden-sharing and on fighting terrorism.
“To see unanimous support for the two main priorities of the president is a great way to start it off,” said Sean Spicer, the press secretary. “When you have an entire meeting that is focused on the president’s agenda, that shows the power of his message.”
Publicly, though, the other leaders appeared less gratified than bewildered. During a photo-taking session, none of them spoke to Mr. Trump, except for the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg. Afterward, several surrounded Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has emerged as the strongest counterweight to the president.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump, a blunt critic of the European Union during his campaign, received a chilly reception from his European counterparts as they began meetings in Brussels.
His first meeting with the Continent’s leaders began with officials from the United States and Europe saying nothing to each other. After being welcomed to Brussels, Mr. Trump said, “Thank you very much,” but he was otherwise silent as he gazed at the cameras across the room.
Donald Tusk, who represents leaders of the bloc’s 28 member states as president of the European Council, made it clear after the morning meeting that there had been several areas of disagreement.
“Some issues remained open like climate and trade,” Mr. Tusk said after the meeting at the European Union’s lavish new headquarters. “And I am not 100 percent sure that we can say today — ‘we’ means Mr. President and myself — that we have a common position, common opinion, about Russia.”
In the talks, Mr. Trump and Mr. Tusk differed over the intentions and policies of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, according to a person with direct knowledge of the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private. That reflects growing anxiety in Europe over what appear to be Russia’s efforts to meddle in elections here and in the United States.
The subject of Russia did not come up in a broader meeting between American and European officials, said Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council. But Mr. Anton said he could not speak for a smaller meeting with Mr. Trump, Mr. Tusk and the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.
The White House put a more positive spin on the day, saying the leaders discussed ways to deepen cooperation in fighting the Islamic State and reaffirmed “the strong bond between the United States and Europe, anchored in shared values and longstanding friendship.”
Climate change is another bone of contention, however. European leaders are turning up the pressure on Mr. Trump not to withdraw from the Paris climate accord that was ratified last year.
The campaign began on Wednesday at the Vatican, when Pope Francis gave Mr. Trump a copy of his influential encyclical on protecting the environment, and the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, urged the president not to withdraw from the accord.
Mr. Trump told Vatican officials that he had not made a final decision about the issue and that he was not likely to do so until after a Group of 7 meeting this weekend in Taormina, Italy, according to Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. The president’s senior advisers have been deadlocked for months over whether the United States should withdraw
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was among those who said he planned to press Mr. Trump on climate change.
“One of the things that we understand in Canada is that investing in clean energy and investing in fighting against climate change is going to help us,” Mr. Trudeau said, citing efforts by governments and businesses to find ways to avoid polluting the planet.
Mr. Trump’s handling of Article 5 epitomizes the gulf between him and other leaders. His steadfast refusal to endorse it as a candidate, and later as president, has raised fears among NATO allies about whether the United States would come to their defense in the event of an attack.
Other American officials have offered reassurances. Mr. Tillerson told reporters traveling on Air Force One this week, “Of course we support Article 5.” But until Mr. Trump speaks those words, leaders of other NATO nations seem bound to remain concerned.
Instead, Mr. Trump criticized the other leaders for not contributing 2 percent of their countries’ gross domestic product to their defense, as they have agreed to do but have often fallen short. He even took a shot at the new headquarters, a vast glass-and-steel edifice that looks like a series of interconnected airplane hangars.
“I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost,” Mr. Trump said. “I refuse to do so. But it looks beautiful.”
In 2014, NATO members agreed to increase their defense spending gradually to meet the 2 percent of G.D.P. goal, with 20 percent of that spending on military equipment. Those commitments have not changed, and after flat defense spending in 2015, spending increased last year among non-American alliance members.
The alarm in Europe over Mr. Trump’s presidency has diminished since the days immediately after his election, in part because emissaries like Mr. Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence have reaffirmed American support for NATO and the European Union.
But Mr. Trump — who once described Brussels as a “hellhole” overrun with radicals — remains an object of deep suspicion in the city. For some of the European leaders, testing Mr. Trump seemed to be as important as finding common ground with him.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers rejected President Donald Trump’s proposed budget blueprint even before it was formally released Tuesday, saying that the cuts are too steep and the accounting is too unrealistic. Lawmakers said the document, which reflects the president’s broad vision, will go nowhere in Congress.
Trump’s proposal, which is the more complete version to the “skinny budget” the White House released in March, seeks to dramatically cut programs for low-income Americans while exponentially increasing defense spending. It also makes drastic cuts to environmental protection programs, agriculture and a host of other programs that senators say go too far.
Sen. John Cornyn, the second ranking Republican in the Senate, called it “dead on arrival.”
“Almost every president’s budget proposal is basically dead on arrival, including President Obama’s,” Cornyn said, making the point that such proposals are more statements of priorities than legislation. He added that Trump’s budget “may find a similar fate.”
between a series of votes at the U… Image: Senator John Cornyn
Democrats immediately criticized Trump and his budget, saying the president who ran as a populist has gone against his campaign promises to help the most in need.
“It’s not good for West Virginia,” Sen. Joe Manchin, R-W.V., said of the proposal. “All the cuts for all the services for some of the neediest people in this country — I have quite a large delegation in my state. They’re going to be hurt.” Trump won West Virginia by nearly 42 percent in November.
The budget disproportionately impacts lower-income Americans. It proposes an additional $600 billion in cuts to Medicaid, beyond the proposed $800 billion worth of cuts to low-income health program proposed in the Republican American Health Care Act, which passed the House this month. Trump pledged not to cut Medicaid as a candidate last year.
Additionally, Trump’s proposal adds one-quarter of a trillion dollars of cuts over ten years to low-income assistance programs, such as food stamps; the food program for women, infants and children, WIC; health insurance for low-income children, known as S-CHIP; and welfare, or TANF. It also adds work requirements for all three programs, saying it will “replace dependency with dignity of work.”
Another rural state Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, said Trump’s budget is “not good” for rural residents. “It’s especially cruel, quite frankly, to people who are up against it and need a hand up.”
Tester acknowledged that Trump won the majority of votes among rural Americans last year, saying the proposed proposal creates “an interesting dichotomy.”
Republicans are also taking issue with some of the cuts. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that despite the proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending, the proposed 29 percent cut to the State Department budget is a major security concern.
“If we implemented this budget, we’d have to retreat from the world or put a lot of people at risk — a lot of Benghazi’s in the making if we actually implemented the State Dept cuts,” said Graham. “So this budget is not going to go anywhere.”
Sen. John Hoeven, D-N.D., criticized the proposed reductions to agriculture programs. He said Congress has already cut $100 billion to such programs for the next ten years and that further reductions will harmful.
“It has some good ideas but we’ll write our own budget,” Hoeven said. “I’ll call this a starting point.”
And Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, criticized cuts to a flood protection system that Louisiana relies on.
“I strongly oppose,” the proposed reductions, Cassidy said. “Our coast line — we just need to that to keep another Katrina from bashing our state.”
Despite Trump’s massive proposed cuts to Medicaid, he kept the two other major entitlement programs – Social Security and Medicaid – largely untouched. (He did proposed cuts to recipients who receive Social Security because of a disability, however.)
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said that the deep cuts are a good start and that Trump has started “a very important discussion,” but he believes Social Security and Medicare should also be looked at.
“I think that right now those all fall into a group of things that are unsustainable. We gotta figure out how we help people who need help,” Tillis said.
The proposal claims that it will save $1.2 trillion dollars in the next ten years with the help of three percent growth to achieve that, something lawmakers say is overly optimistic.
“It’s looking a little light on that right now,” Manchin said of the prospects of 3 percent growth.
House Speaker Paul Ryan refrained from criticism but said that he supports the president’s broader objective.
“Clearly Congress will take that budget and work on our own budget, which is the case every single year. But at least we now have common objectives — grow the economy, balance the budget. So now we are on common ground and we will have a great debate on the details of how to achieve that,” Ryan said.
The entire document wasn’t criticized, however. Republicans largely support a $54 billion in crease in military spending. And Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., chair of the transportation subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee, praised a proposed $200 billion in infrastructure spending.
“I am very interested in what he’s doing with the $200 billion in transportation,” In hofe said.
Although President Trump has now stated and written that fired FBI Director James Comey told him on three separate occasions that he was not the subject of an investigation, sources cast doubt on that claim.
It would be out of character for Comey to have made that statement even once, much less three times, to the president, one law enforcement source told CBS News. Along with his firing, the source noted a high level of “interfering” in the Russia probe.
As for the White House assertions that “countless” FBI rank-and-file employees wanted Comey out, the source said that was a “load of cr*p” to think that agents wanted to see him ousted. That sentiment is shared by acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe in less colorful language. He told a congressional panel Thursday, “Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day. We are a large organization. We are 36,500 people across this country, across this globe. we have a diversity of opinions about many things, but I can confidently tell you that the majority, the vast majority of employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.”
ded opinion within the agency over Comey’s July 2016 announcement that he would not recommend Hillary Clinton be charged for mishandling classified information, in the investigation into her use of a private server for her email.
Within the FBI, the Russia investigation is considered to be “a crisis,” the source said, and “there is a whole lot of interfering.” The succession of events surrounding Comey’s firing is not considered to be a coincidence by the agency. In the week before he was terminated, Comey asked Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein for additional resources to pursue the Russia investigation.
On the same day that Comey was fired, federal prosecutors probing Russian meddling issued grand jury subpoenas for business records of Flynn associates.
And a day later, President Trump held his highest-level meeting with a Russian official, an Oval Office sit-down with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Also present — Sergey Kislyak — who was at the center of the conversations leading to Flynn’s firing in February. No U.S. press were allowed into the meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak. U.S. reporters were forced to look at the Kremlin’s social media feeds for posted photos of the president conversing with Lavrov and shaking hands with Kislyak.
The images, especially the photo of Kislyak and Mr. Trump shaking hands, “were laughed at” by law enforcement, the source said. Even without Comey, the Russian investigation continues at a heightened pace. “FBI Agents are good at keeping their heads down and taking the evidence where it leads,” the source said. I asked, “Even now” are they working at this? The response came back: “Yes, they are now.”
North Korea on Friday accused the CIA of plotting with South Korea to assassinate leader Kim Jong-Un, amid soaring tensions in the flash point region.
The CIA and Seoul’s Intelligence Services have “hatched a vicious plot” involving unspecified “biochemical substances” to kill the hermit state’s young leader during public ceremonial events in Pyongyang, the Ministry of State Security said.
For the CIA “assassination by use of biochemical substances including radioactive substance and
nano poisonous substance is the best method that does not require access to the target, their lethal results will appear after six or twelve months,” the Ministry said in a statement carried by state media.
The accusation comes as Pyongyang issues increasingly belligerent rhetoric in a tense stand off with the administration of US President Donald Trump over its rogue weapons programme.
The war of words between the West and the reclusive regime has spiked in recent weeks, and Pyongyang has threatened to carry out a sixth nuclear test that would further inflame tensions.
“We will ferret out and mercilessly destroy to the last one the terrorists of the US CIA and the puppet IS of South Korea,” the statement said, adding that the plot was tantamount to “the declaration of a war”.
“The heinous crime, which was recently uncovered and smashed in the DPRK, is a kind of terrorism against not only the DPRK but the justice and conscience of humankind and an act of mangling the future of humankind.”
The statement did not give any information on how the plot was foiled or what happened to the alleged spy.
North Korea maintains extensive surveillance operations over its own population, and open dissent against the regime is considered extremely difficult.
LUCCA, Italy — U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued an ultimatum to Russia on Tuesday: Side with the U.S. and likeminded countries on Syria, or embrace Iran, militant group Hezbollah and embattled Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
As he embarked on a trip to Moscow following urgent meetings in Italy with top diplomats, Tillerson said it was unclear whether Russia had failed to take seriously its obligation to rid Syria of chemical weapons, or had merely been incompetent. But he said the distinction “doesn’t much matter to the dead.”
“We cannot let this happen again,” the secretary of state said.
“We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role,” Tillerson added in remarks to reporters. “Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term.”
Since the U.S. launched airstrikes against Assad’s forces in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians last week, Trump administration officials have offered mixed messages about whether Washington believes Assad definitely must surrender power — and when. Tillerson said it was clear the U.S. saw no role for Assad in Syria’s future, given that he had lost legitimacy.
“It is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” he said. “But the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important in our view to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria.”
“That’s why we are not presupposing how that occurs,” Tillerson added.
He said the cease-fire talks that Russia and Iran have helped broker in the Kazakh capital, Astana, could generate momentum toward broader talks about a political transition — if the Astana talks succeed in creating a durable cease-fire. The resulting political talks would take place under the auspices of the United Nations process in Geneva.
“To date, Astana has not achieved much progress,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson spoke after a meeting of the “likeminded” countries was hastily arranged on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of Seven industrialized economies in Italy, days after the U.S. for the first time launched airstrikes against Assad’s forces.
A key focus since the chemical attack has been on increasing pressure on Russia, Assad’s strongest ally, which has used its own military to keep Assad in power. The U.S. and others have said that Russia bears responsibility for the deaths of civilians at the hands of Assad given Moscow’s role in guaranteeing the 2013 deal in which Assad was supposed to have given up his chemical weapons arsenal.
The U.S. raised the stakes significantly on Monday when a senior U.S. official said Washington has made a preliminary conclusion that Russia knew in advance of Syria’s chemical weapons attack. Yet the U.S. has no proof of Moscow’s involvement, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on intelligence matters and demanded anonymity.
That accusation will hang over Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, where he plans with meet with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and possibly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin declined to say whether Putin would meet with Tillerson, in line with its usual practice of not announcing such meetings ahead of time.
The United States has sought to minimize expectations for the trip or the likelihood that the U.S. will leave with any concessions from Russia regarding its support for Assad. Instead, the U.S. is hoping to use the visit — the first by a Trump Cabinet official to Russia — to convey its expectations to Moscow and then allow the Russians a period of time to respond.
Though intended to punish Assad for a chemical weapons attack, the U.S. strikes last week served to refocus the world’s attention on the bloody war in Syria, now in its seventh year. Diplomats gathered in Italy as U.S. officials in Washington floated the possibility of new sanctions on the Syrian and Russian military, plus the threat of additional U.S. military action if Assad’s government continues attacking civilians.
At Tuesday’s meeting in the walled Tuscan city of Lucca, the G-7 countries were joined by diplomats from Muslim-majority nations including Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The inclusion of those countries is important because the U.S. strategy for Syria involves enlisting help from Mideast nations to ensure security and stability in Syria after the Islamic State group is vanquished.
“Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016” Mr Burr said in a joint statement with Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s vice-chairman.
Earlier on Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan also said “no such wiretap existed”.
Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee Devin Nunes said on Wednesday he doesn’t believe “there was an actual tap of Trump Tower”.
Mr Trump called Mr Obama a “bad (or sick) guy” in a series of tweets on Saturday
President Donald Trump’s accusation that his predecessor ordered his phones to be tapped is “simply false”, Barack Obama’s spokesman has said.
Kevin Lewis said that “neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen”.
Mr Trump had tweeted: “Terrible! Just found out Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
He gave no details to back the claim.
In his statement, Mr Lewis said a “cardinal rule of the Obama Administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice”.
The statement left open the possibility that a judicial investigation was taking place.
Earlier Ben Rhodes, who was Mr Obama’s foreign policy adviser and speechwriter, also addressed Mr Trump’s claims in a tweet, saying: “No President can order a wiretap. Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you.”
Mr Trump, who is at his Florida resort, fired off a series of tweets from just after 06:30 local time (11:30 GMT) on Saturday.
He called the alleged tapping “a new low” and said “This is Nixon/Watergate” – referring to the most notorious political scandal of 1972, which led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon after a web of political spying, sabotage and bribery was exposed by the media.
McCarthyism, which Mr Trump referred to in one of the first posts, relates to the persecution for US Communists and their allies led by Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s.
In other developments on Saturday:
ABC News quoted senior White House sources as saying President Trump had gone “ballistic” at an Oval Office meeting on Friday, in particular at the decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to remove himself from an investigation into alleged Russian interference in the election
Politico and CNN report that Mr Trump will sign as early as Monday a new executive order imposing a travel ban on people from some Muslim-majority nations. The first was halted in the courts
Trump supporters have held scores of rallies in locations across the country, ranging from several dozen people to the low hundreds, under the banner of the Spirit of America
Partisan maelstrom: Analysis by Anthony Zurcher, BBC News, Washington
As the Trump administration continues to be bedevilled by a drip-drip of revelations about ties to Russian officials during and after last year’s election, the president has seemingly settled on the identity of the malevolent figure behind the turmoil.
It was the former president, Mr Trump asserts, who is guilty of meddling in the 2016 campaign, not Russia. Mr Obama, he says, is the one whose deeds merit investigation.
The president’s early morning tweets follow an interview on Tuesday in which he accused Mr Obama and “his people” of orchestrating recent political protests across the US and of being behind the government leaks that have embarrassed the White House.
There is scant evidence supporting these allegations, but charges like these fit a pattern. Mr Trump is at his sharpest when pushing back against perceived antagonists, such as Republican primary opponents like Jeb Bush, establishment conservatives who resisted his nomination or Hillary Clinton in the election.
Now Mr Trump is returning to his favourite political foil – a necessity given the current Democratic power vacuum in Washington. It could mark the beginning of a massive water-muddying effort in which any forthcoming investigatory revelations are swept up in a growing partisan maelstrom.
Mr Trump’s tweets followed allegations made by conservative radio host Mark Levin, which were later picked up by Breitbart News, the website run by Steve Bannon before he became chief Trump strategist.
Mr Levin said there should be a congressional investigation into what he called President Obama’s “police state” tactics in his last months in office to undermine Mr Trump’s campaign.
Breitbart summarises Mr Levin’s accusations, which say that:
The Obama administration sought, and eventually obtained, authorisation to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign
It continued monitoring the Trump team even when no evidence of wrongdoing was found
It then relaxed the NSA (National Security Agency) rules to allow evidence to be shared widely within the government
Sessions was one of Trump’s closest advisers during the campaign
The era of good feelings following Donald Trump’s well-received speech to Congress Tuesday night lasted, oh, about 23 hours. Now Russia, and the Trump campaign’s connections to it, are back in the headlines.
At this point there are a few things that are known with certainty.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak twice last year at a time when the then-senator was actively supporting and advising Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
After Mr Sessions was nominated to be Mr Trump’s attorney general – the top US government law official – he was asked, during Senate testimony and in writing, whether he had met with anyone connected to the Russian government with regard to the 2016 elections.
“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians,” he said during his confirmation hearings.
Now Mr Sessions has announced that he will recuse himself from all existing and future department investigations involving the Trump presidential campaign.
Behind these facts are a host of questions, and the answers are somewhat uncertain. Here are some of the most pressing.
Sergei Kislyak – why is that name familiar?
Mr Kislyak, who has served as Russia’s US ambassador since 2008, made headlines earlier this year for his contacts with another prominent member of Mr Trump’s inner circle, Michael Flynn. The former general, who the president named as his national security adviser, came under federal investigation for his contacts with Russian officials after the presidential campaign.
While Mr Flynn acknowledged that he spoke to Mr Kislyak in late December, he originally asserted that he did not discuss sanctions the US government had imposed on Russia in response to concerns about possible Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Leaked reports from the intelligence community revealed that this was not the case, and the president subsequently asked for Mr Flynn’s resignation.
Is it unusual for a senator to talk to an ambassador?
When asked about Mr Sessions’ contacts with Mr Kislyak, a Justice Department spokesperson told the Washington Post that the senator had “more than 25 conversations” with ambassadors in his capacity as a high-ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Post followed up by contacting the other 26 members of that committee, and the 20 who responded said they had not spoken with the Russian ambassador.
“I’ve been on the Armed Services Committee for 10 years,” tweeted Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. “No call or meeting with Russian ambassador. Ever. Ambassadors call members of the Foreign Relations Committee.”
A closer look at Mrs McCaskill’s Twitter feed revealed several instances – in 2013 and 2015 – where she wrote about meeting the Russian ambassador, however. She says those meetings were not in her capacity as a committee member and were never one-on-one.
Former Republican congressman Mike Rogers, who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, said such meetings for a senator on the committee would be “routine.” Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia expressed a similar view.
“I’ve met with the Russian ambassador with a group, in my capacity, with a group of other senators,” he said during a television interview Thursday morning. “That’s in my official capacity. That’s nothing. That’s my job.”
If these sorts of meetings are routine, then why the evasion?
This, then, is the million-dollar question – and what Democrats in Congress and Trump opponents everywhere seem to be focusing on.
“If there was nothing wrong, why not come clean and tell the entire truth?” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asked during a press conference on Thursday morning.
Since the Washington Post story came out, the attorney general and his representatives have offered an array of responses to this, ranging from forgetfulness to not thinking it was important/relevant.
“I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions told a news conference on Thursday afternoon.
Democrats weren’t buying it.
“When Senator Sessions testified under oath that ‘I did not have communications with the Russians,’ his statement was demonstrably false, yet he let it stand for weeks,” said Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland. “And he continued to let it stand even as he watched the president tell the entire nation he didn’t know anything about anyone advising his campaign talking to the Russians.”
During the Flynn controversy, Mr Trump defended his embattled national security adviser by saying that contacts with foreign leaders, including Russians, weren’t just permissible but advisable. That defence fell apart because clear evidence came out that Mr Flynn had been evasive not only to the press and public but to the administration itself.
Mr Sessions has since said that he did indeed meet with the ambassador twice and probably should have mentioned it during his confirmation hearings, but he was responding to questions about ongoing contact with Russian operatives. Critics are saying he is parsing words. Like Flynn, the original evasion has become a bigger story than the original contacts.
There at present is an ongoing inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with other intelligence agencies, into possible Russian meddling with the 2016 presidential elections, including any connections to members of the Trump campaign team.
In late January FBI officials interviewed Mr Flynn, for instance, on his contacts with Mr Kislyak.
In addition, two congressional panels – the House and Senate intelligence committees – are already planning on looking into the matter, although no concrete steps have yet to be taken. They may subpoena Trump officials, including Mr Flynn, to testify on the extent of their interaction with the Russian government.
Some Democrats have called for the creation of a special “select” committee to focus solely on the investigation, rather than relying on existing committees that have other obligations. So far, these calls have not gained traction.
Others, including Mr Schumer, have demanded a special independent counsel to be named to lead the inquiry – similar to the duties performed by Kenneth Starr during the Bill Clinton administration. The danger for the White House is that these types of investigations are difficult to control and can expand greatly in scope as they progress.
The Starr investigation, for instance, started as an inquiry into an old Clinton real-estate deal and eventually ended in a recommendation that the president be impeached for lying about sexual relations with a White House intern.
Can Sessions survive?
After bipartisan calls for Mr Sessions to recuse himself from oversight, as attorney general, of the FBI’s Russia investigation reached a fevered pitch, the attorney general relented. He notably said, however, that the decision was made in consultation with career Justice Department officials and was due to his involvement with the Trump campaign and not because of the recent revelations.
Democrats have upped the ante, however, calling for Mr Sessions’ outright resignation.
“Jeff Sessions simply does not have the confidence of the American people,” tweeted Congresswoman Yvette Clarke of New York. “He should resign now.”
Given the attorney general’s close relationship with the president, a resignation seems unlikely. Then again, the same could be said for Mr Flynn, and he was ultimately shown the door.
What should be of particular concern to Republicans is that the Sessions revelations fit a growing pattern of obfuscation and evasion on the part of the president’s inner circle when it comes to contact with the Russian government.
It’s the kind of thing that will prompt more questions, more investigations and more speculation about what else is out there.