Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the House deputy majority whip, defended Attorney General Jeff Sessions Thursday shortly after the embattled Cabinet member recused himself from investigating the Trump campaign and its possible contacts with Russian officials. Sessions, a key Trump supporter, admitted meeting twice with the Russian ambassador in 2016.
“There’s a little bit of a feeding frenzy around this, and that’s not unusual in Washington, D.C.,” Cole said with a chuckle, in an interview with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric. “But I just don’t see any evidence that he did anything wrong or that he’s done anything other than try to be honest and forthright in dealing with the issue.”
Couric asked Cole whether he believed Sessions’ claim that he had discussed Ukraine and terrorism in a meeting with the Russian ambassador in September, but that he did not remember whether they discussed the turbulent American campaign — just two months before the general election.
Cole replied that he takes Sessions at his word. Cole said he had even asked his own scheduler how many foreign ambassadors he had met with since the beginning of 2016, because he couldn’t recall every encounter. It turned out to be about a dozen.
“Some of them focus very heavily on policy or issues — if you’re talking with the ambassador from Israel, for instance. Some of them, believe me, they want to talk politics. They want to try to understand the country they’re an ambassador to,” he said. “So it’s not unusual to have that kind of a discussion.”
Couric pointed out that a meeting with a Russian ambassador would not be a forgettable, run-of-the-mill, political meet-and-greet — especially after the U.S. intelligence community revealed that Moscow had sought to influence the American election process. She asked if that seemed odd to Cole.
“No it really doesn’t,” Cole said. “Look, again, I meet with ambassadors all the time. Some of them are countries that are very friendly to the United States. Some of them are countries [with whom] we have an adversarial relationship. I don’t find that unusual, frankly.”
During Sessions’ confirmation hearing on Jan. 10, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked Sessions what he would do if any evidence arose indicating that anyone connected with Trump’s campaign had communicated with the Russian government before the election.
“Sen. Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians,” Sessions replied.
But on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Sessions, who has represented Alabama in the Senate for the past 20 years, had in fact met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, twice last year, information he did not disclose during his confirmation. He said the meetings were related to his Senate work and that the campaign did not come up in them.
National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned Feb. 13, after the disclosure that he had misled administration officials, including the vice president, about his own conversations with the Russian envoy.
According to Cole, Sessions’ disclosure of his meetings with the Russian diplomat should have been clearer and sharper, but he went on to describe this as “a murky area.”
“To me, this is a little bit of a tempest in a teapot,” Cole said. “He’s answered the questions as clearly as he knows how, and he’s made it very abundantly clear he’ll have nothing to do with any investigation that might take place.”
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