By Ellen Nakashima,
The Justice Department on Thursday released a single redacted page from Attorney General Jeff Session’s security clearance form from November that indicated he had not had any contact with a foreign government official in the past seven years.
That contradicts his later admission that he had met with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, twice last year. At the time, Sessions was a U.S. senator and an adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The meetings occurred in July and September.
Sessions’s omission may not be a violation of security clearance rules as long as the contacts occurred in his capacity as a lawmaker, U.S. officials say. But other experts say he should have erred on the side of transparency.
The watchdog group American Oversight, whose lawsuit forced the disclosure of the form, said that FBI investigators should have been told about the meetings. The group learned Thursday in court that the bureau did not turn up the information on its own.
Sessions disclosed the meetings only after The Washington Post inquired for an article published in March.
The question on the form, known as an SF86, asks the applicant to say whether he has had “any contact with a foreign government,” such as an embassy or its representatives, inside or outside the United States in the past seven years.
Sessions put an “X” in the box marked “No.”
Ian Prior, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement that Sessions’s staff was told by the FBI investigator handling the background check that he need not list meetings with foreign dignitaries in connection with Senate activities. Other U.S. government officials with clearances who have dealt extensively with foreign officials say they, too, have been advised that they don’t need to list contacts with such officials.
“It would be a different matter if [Sessions] was acting in his capacity as a campaign adviser,” said an aide to Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), whose office looked into the matter.
Sessions met with Kislyak in July during the Republican National Convention and in September in his Senate office.
Evan Lesser, an expert in security clearance investigations, said it’s better to report the contacts. “The lines can be blurry between conversations that you might have with a foreign national that specifically relate to Senate work and something that may be outside that,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to list everything.”
Sessions, an early Trump supporter who advised the campaign on foreign policy, was nominated in November to be attorney general. The job he was being vetted for — the highest law enforcement official in the country — is very sensitive, and any contacts with Russian officials would have been good to disclose, Lesser said.
“It’s not just about foreign influence, but could someone hold some sway over you?” he said. “It’s precisely why you’re required to list the entirety of your foreign connections, including meetings and financial ties. It’s really to understand, is there a potential conflict of interest, or could this person be coerced in some kind of way?”
Sessions did not disclose his Kislyak meetings during his confirmation hearing in January. His explanation was that he had met with the ambassador as a member of the Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump adviser.
Nonetheless, watchdog groups see Sessions’s answer as part of a troubling pattern of Trump associates not disclosing contacts with the Russian government.
Last year, Trump officials insisted that the campaign had not had any communication with Russian officials. This week, the New York Times reported that Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr.; son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort met with a Russian lawyer whom they thought had information from the Russian government that could help Trump’s campaign.
“From Jeff Sessions to Jared Kushner to Donald Trump Jr., the president’s closest confidants appear to have collective amnesia about their dealings with the Russian government,” said Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight.