Fired FBI Director James Comey reportedly referenced an undisclosed meeting between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the closed-door session on Thursday with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Yet a source familiar with the matter said no such meeting ever happened.
In response to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) during testimony to the committee, Comey said he and senior leaders at the bureau decided not to voice concerns about President Donald Trump to Sessions, even before he recused himself because they believed that decision was inevitable.
Then Comey, unprompted, added this: “We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. So we were convinced … that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer.”
The statement did not go unnoticed, sending reporters and the public scrambling to figure out what Comey was referring to that was not already public knowledge. CNN later reported that Comey told senators, in a closed session of the committee, that he was referring to the possibility that Sessions might have had a third meeting with Kislyak. The information is based on intercepted conversations among Russian officials. CNN, quoting confidential sources, reported it is possible Kislyak was exaggerating his meeting with Sessions.
CNN last week reported that congressional investigators were seeking more information about whether a Sessions-Kislyak meeting took place on April 27 last year at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where candidate Trump delivered his first major foreign-policy speech.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement last week that Sessions did not meet with the Russian ambassador during the speech: “The facts haven’t changed; the then-senator did not have any private or side conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel.”
The source with knowledge of the matter confirmed that, telling LifeZette: “There was a ton of people there … They didn’t speak.”
“Leahy and Franken are doing this because they don’t like him and his agenda … They’re impugning the character of a good man.”
In a statement on Thursday, Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior disputed various aspects of Comey’s testimony. These included denying the former director’s contention that Sessions stood silent when Comey complained about Trump clearing the Oval Office to meet one-on-one with him in February.
In fact, Prior said in the statement, Sessions “responded to this comment by saying that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful about following appropriate policies regarding contacts with the White House.”
Prior did not address Comey’s suggestion that another factor influenced his decision not to inform Sessions of concerns about Trump.
Comey could simply have referenced the attorney general’s impending recusal. But he chose to add the reference to other factors he could not “discuss in an open setting,” leading some to speculate that he did so intentionally to embarrass Sessions.
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The source said it is unclear whether Comey acted intentionally or was in line with contradictory testimony in previous appearances before Congress.
“It shows he doesn’t exercise good judgment with respect to what he’s saying,” the source said.
Trump’s critics have seized on supposed Sessions-Kislyak links as part of a broader narrative of “smoke” in the Russia investigation. Sessions has been swept up in that narrative since revelations that he had met twice with the ambassador last year despite testifying at his confirmation hearing that “I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians.”
Sessions later explained that the question he was answering, posed by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), involved activities as a campaign surrogate, and that his meeting in June 2016 with Kislyak in his Senate office was in connection with his duties as a senator.
The second “meeting” occurred at an event hosted by The Heritage Foundation outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. According to people who were there, Sessions delivered a speech in a room that included dozens of foreign ambassadors and chatted briefly with some of them — including Kislyak — as he walked through the room.
Franken and fellow Judiciary Committee member Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) have accused Sessions of perjury.
“Leahy and Franken are doing this because they don’t like him and his agenda … They’re impugning the character of a good man,” the source said.