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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Did Sessions ‘Lie’?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says Attorney General Jeff Sessions “lied under oath” when he said he “did not have communications with the Russians” during the presidential campaign. She has called on him to resign.

Sessions says that, in context, his responses as part of the Senate confirmation process were “honest and correct as I understood it at the time.” He acknowledged that he should have told the Senate that he “did meet one Russian official a couple of times,” but he said any claims that he gave a false answer are “not correct.”

We’ll leave it up to readers to decide whether Sessions’ comments to Congress were “lies,” which would mean an intention to deceive. But here are the facts as we know them right now.

Let’s start with Sessions’ comments in question. They were made at the Jan. 10 Senate hearing on whether to confirm Sessions as attorney general, in response to questions posed by Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat (at the 2:10 mark).

Franken: CNN has just published a story and I’m telling you this about a news story that’s just been published, so I’m not expecting you to know whether or not it’s true or not. But CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, “Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” These documents also allegedly say quote, “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”

Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

Sessions: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.

Franken: Very well. Without divulging sensitive information, do you know about this or know what compromising personal and financial information the Russians claim to have?

Sessions: Senator Franken, allegations get made about candidates all the time and they’ve been made about President-elect Trump a lot sometimes. Most of them, virtually all of them have been proven to be exaggerated and untrue. I would just say to you that I have no information about this matter. I have not been in on the classified briefings and I’m not a member of the intelligence committee, and I’m just not able to give you any comment on it at this time.

Sessions repeated that stance on Jan. 17 in answers to written questions from Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy as part of the confirmation process.

Leahy: Several of the President-Elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?

Sessions: No.

On March 1, the Washington Post reported that then-Sen. Sessions “spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States,” according to Justice Department officials.

That prompted swift rebuke from numerous Democratic leaders who claimed Sessions misled them in the Senate confirmation hearing.

On March 2, Pelosi tweeted:

And Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer held a press conference during which he called for Sessions to resign.

“There’s nothing inappropriate with a senator meeting with the Russian ambassador,” Schumer said. “There is something very inappropriate to dramatically mislead Congress.”

Schumer also faulted Sessions for failing to correct the record in the weeks after the confirmation hearing.

Schumer called on the inspector general of the Department of Justice to “immediately begin an investigation into the attorney general’s involvement in this matter thus far to discover if the investigation [of contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence] has already been compromised.”

In response to the Washington Post story, Sessions initially issued a statement saying, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

The Washington Post reported that Sessions met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential campaign. In July, the Post said, Sessions spoke individually with Kislyak after a Heritage Foundation event held in conjunction with the Republican National Convention. Sessions also met privately with Kislyak in Sessions’ Senate office on Sept. 8.

Both of those meetings with the Russian ambassador came during the time Sessions was acting as a surrogate for the Trump campaign. After formally endorsing Trump in late February 2016, Sessions was tapped on March 3 to head up the campaign’s national security advisory committee.

The meetings also came long after it was widely reported that private cybersecurity firms had determined the Russian government was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computer system. However, it wasn’t until Oct. 7 that the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security issued a joint statement saying that the U.S. Intelligence Community — which includes 17 member agencies — was “confident” that recent hacks into the email systems of the Democratic Party were directed by the Russian government.

In a press conference on March 2, Sessions said his response to Franken was “honest” in the context of Franken’s question.

“Let me be clear, I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said. “And the idea that I was part of a quote, ‘continuing exchange of information’ during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government is totally false.

“That is the question that Senator Franken asked me at the hearing, and that’s what got my attention,” Sessions said. “As he noted, it was the first — just breaking news. And it got my attention. And that is the question I responded to. I did not respond by referring to the two meetings, one very brief after a speech, and one with two of my senior staffers, professional staffers, with the Russian ambassador in Washington, where no such things were discussed.”

At the meeting in his office in September, Sessions said he and the Russian ambassador discussed terrorism and Ukraine, at which point the conversation got a little “testy.” And while ambassadors tend to be “pretty gossipy,” Sessions said, “I don’t recall any specific political discussions.”

At the press conference — in which Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from any FBI investigation related to the Trump campaign — he allowed that with regard to Franken’s question, “In retrospect, I should have slowed down and said, ‘But I did meet one Russian official a couple of times, and that would be the ambassador.'”

In a press briefing earlier on March 2, Pelosi said Sessions’ comments in the confirmation hearing might amount to perjury.

But legal experts say it would be difficult to prosecute a perjury charge against Sessions, given the ambiguity of the context of his statement.

According to federal law, perjury is committed when one is under oath and “willfully subscribes as true any material matter which he does not believe to be true.”

“The thing about perjury is there can’t be any room for ambiguity, confusion or uncertainty,” said Randall Eliason, who teaches white collar criminal law at George Washington University Law School and is a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, where he served as chief of the public corruption/government fraud section. “Because you’ve got to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person knowingly and intentionally said something that they did not believe to be true.”

Being evasive or cagey isn’t the same thing as telling a lie and committing perjury, Eliason told us.

“There is enough wiggle room that makes a perjury prosecution [against Sessions] difficult,” Eliason said. Unless there is some bombshell, he said, such as emails or notes from the conversation that suggest Sessions was acting in his role as a campaign surrogate, “I don’t see it as a criminal case.”

We agree that there may be some ambiguity about Sessions’ response in the confirmation hearing, and whether or not he intentionally misled senators. And so we’ll leave it up to readers to make up their own minds about that. And we will update this piece should new information emerge.