Jeff Sessions said he did not discuss campaign matters with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. That is a ridiculous claim, because one of his meetings occurred at the GOP convention last year, at the very time when the Trump campaign was forcing the Republican party to change its platform to accommodate the Russian government over Ukraine. Indeed, what happened in Cleveland has implications not only for the Trump administration, but for the entire party.
Here's what we know:
"Jeff Sessions met with the Russian Ambassador at least twice—once at his Senate office in September and once at an event at the Republican National Convention in July," according to Slate.
Sessions claims that in both meetings he was acting as a Senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee. But The Wall Street Journal reports that he paid for his expenses out of political funds, as if he were a campaign surrogate, and not out of a legislative fund.
At the convention the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, also met with two other Trump campaign advisors. From USA Today:
It's unknown what the Trump campaign officials who spoke with the ambassador – J.D. Gordon and Carter Page – discussed with him. Those who took part in the events in Cleveland said it is not unusual for presidential campaign teams to interact with diplomats. However, the newly-revealed communications further contradict months of repeated denials by Trump officials that his campaign had contact with officials representing the Russian government.
The GOP convention matters, because this is where the Trump administration put pressure on the Republican party to dramatically change its platform on Russia's intervention into Ukraine.
According to NPR, a platform committee member and longtime activist Diana Denman "tried to insert language calling for the U.S. to provide lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainian government." Then two unknown people intervened:
When she presented her proposal during a platform subcommittee meeting last month, "two gentleman," whom Denman said were part of the Trump campaign, came over, looked at the language, and asked that it be set aside for further review.
The Trump people got what they wanted:
The Trump campaign convinced the platform committee to change Denman's proposal. It went from calling on the U.S. to provide Ukraine "lethal defensive weapons" to the more benign phrase "appropriate assistance."
It's more than semantics. Many Republicans have been demanding the Obama administration provide a more robust response to Russia's incursions in Ukraine.
Denman "was steam rolled," said Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC, think tank, who believes the language the Trump campaign approved is weaker. And she says "it's anyone's guess" what Trump would do regarding Ukraine and Russia, and that perhaps he might not even back "appropriate assistance."
JD Gordon originally said that he had nothing to do with this shift, but then changed his story yesterday and admitted that he pushed for watered down language. Was he one of the two people? That's not completely clear. Who was the other "gentleman?" We don't know. The Washington Post also has a detailed article on how the GOP platform was gutted.
Kislyak was at the convention meeting with three Trump operatives, and at that same convention two operatives reduced assistance to Ukraine in the GOP platform. One of the three people who talked to the Russian admits he was part of this effort - after first denying it.
Business Insider provides more of the troubling context:
Paul Manafort was Trump's campaign manager from April through August. He served as a top adviser to a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine from 2004 to 2012 and helped the Russia-friendly strongman Viktor Yanukovych win the Ukrainian presidency in 2010.
An unverified dossier presented to Trump in January by top US intelligence officials alleges that Trump "agreed to sideline" the issue of Russian intervention in Ukraine during his campaign after Russia promised to feed the emails it stole from prominent Democrats' inboxes to WikiLeaks. The dossier also claims Manafort was receiving "kickback payments" from Yanukovych's associates in Ukraine, where Manafort "had been commercially active ... right up to the time (in March 2016) when he joined campaign team."
Politico has more information on Carter Page's involvement in this. Page confirmed that he talked to the Russian ambassador, but declined to say what it was about.
Who is Sergey Kislyak? He's a diplomat, but also possibly a spy.
CNN reported Wednesday that Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak is considered by US intelligence to be one of Russia's top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington, citing current and former senior US government officials.
But asked by CNN's team in Moscow about the report, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova insisted Kislyak was "a well-known, world-class diplomat."
The New York Times has covered his extensive relationships throughout DC, and his connections to Trumpworld:
Mr. Kislyak’s networking success has landed him at the center of a sprawling controversy and made him the most prominent, if politically radioactive, ambassador in Washington. Two advisers to President Trump have run into trouble for not being more candid about contacts with Mr. Kislyak: Michael T. Flynn, who was forced to resign as national security adviser, and now Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who admitted two previously undisclosed conversations. Mr. Kislyak also met during the transition with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.
Who was involved in changing the GOP platform? The chairman of the RNC was Reince Priebus, who is now Trump's chief of staff. The platform committee's chair was Senator John Barrasso from Wyoming. One co-chair was Mary Fallin, governor of Oklahoma and eventually vice chair of the Trump transition team. Another co-chair was Representative Virginia Foxx, a Congresswoman from North Carolina's 5th district.
Rachel Hoff was on the national security platform subcommittee that actually decided to make this change. She was present for some of the discussions and spoke to the Washington Post about it, saying:
"This is another example of Trump being out of step with GOP leadership and the mainstream in a way that shows he would be dangerous for America and the world.”
More will come to light. But Jeff Sessions is not telling the truth about what went on at that convention. And it seems absolutely beyond belief that other Republicans in the establishment didn't know this ambassador was there having his meetings and changing GOP policy.
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