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The Russia Investigations: Sessions Under Pressure; More Questions For Trump Aides

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about domestic security on Nov. 2 in New York.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about domestic security on Nov. 2 in New York.

Last week in the Russia investigations: More pressure on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, more details about Russia's personal outreach to Trump campaign aides and more questions about Trump Jr.'s meeting with Russians last year

More questions for Jeff Sessions

The bad news for Attorney General Jeff Sessions: He is due back on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to talk about the Russia imbroglio, this time before the House Judiciary Committee.

The good news for Sessions: He'll be before the House Judiciary Committee.

Its chairman, retiring Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., wants to talk Russia all right — about the Russian acquisition of the Canadian mining company Uranium One in 2010, which has become the basis for a parallel narrative of "Russian collusion" that Republicans say is the real scandal here.

Goodlatte and other House committee chairmen have vowed to investigate the role that Hillary Clinton played in that deal — including allegations of graft involving Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation — as well as the FBI's handling of its investigation into Clinton's private email server when she was secretary of state.

So the stage could be set for a Benghazi-like dual-track hearing: When Republicans have the floor, they can throw Sessions a lifeline with questions about what they call the venality of the Clintons and the Justice Department under his predecessor. When Democrats are up, they can focus on what critics have called his inconsistent statements about the ties between Trump campaign aides and Russians.

Fellow travelers

Sessions has said that he wasn't aware of any contacts between people in the campaign and Russians trying to influence the election. In the past few weeks, however, two former junior foreign policy aides — George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, of whom more anon — have said they told their bosses, including Sessions, about their Russian connections.

Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his dealings with Russians, which included meetings and contacts that involved offers of dirt on Clinton and "off the record" discussions with top Russians. Page told the House Intelligence Committee that he wasn't aware of any influence campaign, but he did acknowledge many in-person contacts with Russians on his trips to Moscow last year.

Sessions has already recused himself from the DOJ Russia probe because, he said, it would be improper for him to superintend the investigation of a campaign in which he took part. But Democrats say there's even more to this — Sessions hasn't been truthful to Congress, they complain, and he owes more answers.

Doctor Page

The House Intelligence Committee has seldom convened a session like the one that featured Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser. It came to order Nov. 2 at 9:40 a.m. It adjourned at 4:58 p.m. The transcript ran to 243 pages. Page appeared without an attorney and submitted a number of written documents to the panel, even though he had previously said he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, which he ultimately decided not to do, except for the times when he did.

"What in God's name did I just read?" asked the Washington Post's Alexandra Petri. The New York Times' Michael S. Schmidt tried to boil it all down to some "major takeaways." For The Atlantic's David A. Graham, the document revealed a man, in Page, "deeply connected to Russia — and in way over his head."

What you need to know is this: While traveling to Russia last summer, Page met personally with several people, he says, including at least one top government official. And he says he talked about his travels with Sessions and other campaign supervisors, including national security adviser J.D. Gordon and communications director Hope Hicks.

But Page says he wasn't aware of any Russian effort to influence the election and rejects especially the claims about him in the infamous, unverified dossier that surfaced in January. And Gordon told NPR's Ryan Lucas that both Page and Papadopoulos were "peripheral members of a relatively peripheral advisory committee."

Quid pro quo?

One of the Russian advocates who met with Donald Trump Jr. last year says he appeared to agree to consider revisiting U.S. sanctions on Russia if his father was elected,Irina Reznik and Henry Meyer report for Bloomberg Politics.

Attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya told the correspondents that Trump Jr. responded to her offer of evidence that Democratic donors were evading taxes by raising the prospect that a notional President Trump might re-evaluate the restrictions on key Russians imposed in 2012.

For what it's worth, Veselnitskaya also said she is prepared to tell the same story to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, and there are indications she may be in contact with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

What kind of game is being played here? There's no way to know. The campaign of "active measures" waged by the Russian government against the U.S. since ...let's say, 2015 ... has never stopped. The new twist could be that it's aimed at hurting Family Trump, rather than helping it. There has always been the potential that the Russian government could flip a switch and reverse the polarity of its interference, because why not? The basic goal is to sow chaos.

Big if true, though. Trump Jr. was one of at least nine people in the Trump orbit in contact with Russians or their agents during the campaign and transition,per the Washington Post's accounting. And if, in fact, he reciprocated an offer of "dirt" on Democrats (or Hillary Clinton, or whatevs) by promising favorable consideration if Trump was elected? That would be significant.

However, Congress wound up increasing sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its attack on the 2016 presidential campaign, as well as limiting President Trump's ability to ease them without approval from Capitol Hill.


Ex-aide tells lawmakers he rejected offer of women for Trump

President Trump listens to then-Director of Oval Office Operations Keith Schiller at the White House on June 12.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
President Trump listens to then-Director of Oval Office Operations Keith Schiller at the White House on June 12.

Trump's former top security guard told the House Intelligence Committee he laughed off an offer to send women up to Trump's hotel room in Moscow during a 2013 visit, Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb report for CNN. Keith Schiller, a longtime aide to Trump for many years prior to the president's political career, told investigators behind closed doors that he considered the offer a joke.

Meaning what?Trump and allies are keen to knock down the allegations in the infamous, unverified dossier. NPR has never detailed the material because it has not been proved, but Schiller's testimony continues the administration's strong case that it's balderdash. At the same time, Schiller does appear to have acknowledged that someone in Russia might have wanted to embarrass — and perhaps blackmail — Trump.

Google boss: Who knows what tech Russia will have by 2020?

The executive chairman of Google's parent company says that the search and ad giant is doing what it can to quash influence-mongery on its platform, but the picture he paints is not a rosy one.Eric Schmidt asked Fast Company rhetorically how the West could keep pace. "I worry that the Russians in 2020 will have a lot more powerful tools," Schmidt said.

Meaning what?If this is another arena in the cyberworld in which attack is stronger than defense, Schmidt's warning suggests even he is concerned that potential active measures campaigns in 2018 or beyond could be beyond Western countermeasures.

Grant me the serenity to accept my own Twitter account

Former FBI Director James Comey has dropped his long-maintained cover on Twitter under the guise of theologian Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr. Now he is posting in the open under the handle @Comey.

Meaning what?The ex-G-man has a book coming out and he wants to promote it — plus who knows what other aspirations he has for the next phase of his career?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.