Attorney General Jeff Sessions is recusing himself from the politically explosive investigations into Russia's interference with the presidential election because of revelations that he'd personally met with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak — and then failed, under oath, to acknowledge those meetings during his Senate confirmation hearings.
If Kislyak's name sounds vaguely familiar, it's because the veteran diplomat was also at the center of the earlier Russia scandal that led to the resignation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn left the White House in February after reports emerged that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about discussing sanctions on Russia with Kislyak during a phone conversation in December.
But it turns out that wasn't the only interaction between Flynn and Kislyak. On Thursday afternoon, the White House — potentially trying to get ahead of more damaging revelations — said that Kislyak and Flynn also held a previously undisclosed meeting in December. Also present at the meeting with Kislyak: Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and consigliere.
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That makes Kislyak the common thread between the two firestorms of controversy surrounding the White House's unusual relationship with Russia. Flynn and Sessions both failed to be honest with the public about their interactions with him, and those lies have exacted an enormous toll on their reputation: Flynn resigned, and the Democratic leadership isannounced that he was recusing himself from the escalating FBI probe into Moscow's meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Flynn and Sessions have taken a hit because they attempted to cover up their communication with Russia, not because of the communication itself. But the very fact that the officials felt the need to try to cover their tracks adds to the towering stack of questions surrounding the Trump administration's ties to Russia. And it calls into question what the new president hopes to gain from his seeming willingness to make concessions to Moscow.
Russian diplomats around the world have traditionally had close ties to the country's intelligence services, and there are claims in the intelligence community that Kislyak is a spy. There's no proof, however. And nothing that has emerged in leaks about the ongoing FBI probes into the envoy's dealings with the Trump administration suggests agents are looking into whether or not he's a spy.
The fact that Kislyak was the point of contact in both situations is not in and of itself controversial or surprising. He is the Kremlin's top diplomat to the US, and it makes sense that he'd be in contact with a presidential campaign and then an incoming administration looking to dramatically change Washington's relationship with Russia.
Still, understanding Kislyak's history and reputation is critical to getting a clearer sense of how he operates, what his goals are, and why senior US officials should have been more cautious in their dealings with him.