Sessions Recuses Himself From Russia Probe, As Trump Continues To Take Heat For Moscow
President Donald Trump continues to take the slings and arrows for daring to call for a detente with the Russians. They are coming at him from all different directions. And while the bulk of those arrows are being shot from the shadows inside the State Department, intelligence services and by Democratic party operatives with different motives, one thing is clear: Trump is paying a heavy price for wanting to work with Russia.
On Thursday, it was the lead Democrats and the activist groups that orbit around them calling for the head of newly minted U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for allegedly lying to Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken about meetings he’s had with Russian officials. Twitter was lit up primarily by the Ukraine advocacy journalists and activists who saw this as another day to demonstrate how Trump’s America is the second coming of the Kremlin.
Senate party leader Charles Schumer called for Sessions resignation. The Party is up in arms over alleged Russian involvement in hacking of the Democratic National Committee emails that cast their candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an unflattering light. The Democratic party lost a number of seats nationwide in November, calling into question the legitimacy of the Party’s claim that the Russians put Trump over the top. The entire party took a beating at the polls this fall.
Within official Washington, Russia is seen as the key adversary in a decades old regime change policy in the Middle East. Once relegated to non-vital status in Washington, Russia became the enemy again when Vladimir Putin put his foot down on a U.S.-backed rebel movement seeking the removal of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. Trump has signaled a willingness to work with the Russians on fighting terrorism, particularly in Syria where ISIS once controlled parts of the country. Trump, like presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, has come out against regime change.
The Sessions crisis started in January, when the Alabama senator and former chairman of the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces was asked by Franken if he had any contact with Russian officials regarding the Trump campaign. Sessions said he did not and could not comment any further.
Inside Moscow’s Hotel Ukraine
Weeks later, it became clear that Sessions met informally with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in July at a Heritage Foundation event, and then again a month later in his own office.
On Thursday, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Russia hawk who does not see eye-to-eye with Trump regarding Putin, said he trusted the long-time Alabama senator. Graham said he believed Sessions did not discuss the Trump campaign with Russian officials. Sessions was one of Trump’s early supporters in the Senate.
The president said today that “I think (Sessions) told the truth,” but added he was not aware Attorney General Sessions had met with Kislyak at any time during his campaign.
At a press conference, Sessions said he will recuse himself from any investigation into the Trump campaign and its alleged contacts with Russians. “This is not an admission of guilt,” he said.
There is an ongoing investigation into Russian involvement, but very little is known about it. Trump remains under pressure from allegation and rumor. That pressure could exhaust Trump from his own version of a Russia reset, once tried by President Barack Obama in 2009.
Minutes prior to the press conference, CNN put out a headline on its website complete with dark and dreary music, showcasing Sessions’ meet and greets with Kislyak.
The Sessions press conference began at 4:09 PM in Washington at the Department of Justice. “Let me be clear, I never had meetings with Russian operatives or intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” he said immediately upon stepping to the podium. He said the notion he had any connection, or was acting on Trump’s behalf when talking to Kislyak, was “totally false”.
Sessions told reporters he me with Kislyak’s in his office on Capitol Hill. He described Kislyak as an “old style Soviet ambassador.” They talked about Ukraine, and he said the Ambassador was upset about being blamed for all the civil strife taking place in the Eastern part of the country where Russian backed armed rebels are fighting the Ukrainian army. The U.S. and Europe, Russia’s most important trading partner, sanctioned Russian banks and oil and gas companies because of the Ukraine crisis.
There has been a handful of articles in the political press suggesting that at least two Trump surrogates, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, had ties to Russia. And that these ties came with some sort of guarantees that a Trump win would mean the end of U.S. sanctions on Russia.
But the biggest Trump team member with actual Russian ties has already been sworn in. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the former CEO of ExxonMobil, which says it has lost roughly $1 billion from a joint venture with Russia’s Rosneft due to sanctions. If there is one man in the Trump administration that has Russia close to his heart, it’s Tillerson. Given the Democratic Party’s strategy of disrupting Trump on Russia rumors, it is probably a matter of time before someone discovers a story to try and derail the former Exxon chief, DC insiders from Homeland have said on the condition of anonymity.
Sessions admitted he should have mentioned the Kislyak meet to Franken, but was too focused on the breaking news of that day that said he spoke with Russian officials about Trump. ”In retrospect, I should have said that I met with one Russian official in the past and that was the Russian ambassador,” he said, closing out the press conference.
“There is no reason why Sessions cannot meet with the Russian ambassador in his capacity, but there are reasonable concerns regarding the potentially broad interpretation of his answers, both to Senator Franken during the confirmation hearing as well as in writing to Senator (Patrick) Leahy (D-VT),” said Robert Amsterdam, an international attorney who is no stranger to Russian intrigue. Amsterdam was part of the legal team defending Russian oligarch and ex-oil man Mikhail Khodorkovsky on financial fraud charges at Yukos Oil, now owned by Rosneft. ”If the meetings held with Kislyak had nothing to do with the 2016 election…then there is no story here,” Amsterdam says.
Sessions said he would write an explanation of his response to Sen. Franken’s congressional inquiry and send it to the Judiciary Committee.
Wall Street largely ignored the latest Trump-Russia soap opera. The VanEck Russia (RSX) fund closed 1.9% lower on Thursday, but did better than Brazil, India and China.
“We have to try and avoid the headline noise,” Sophus Capital investment manager Michael Reynal says.
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