WASHINGTON • Standing before reporters in February, US President Donald Trump said unequivocally that he knew of nobody from his campaign who was in contact with Russians during the election. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has told the Senate the same thing.
But court documents unsealed this week have cast doubt on both statements, raising the possibility that Mr Sessions could be recalled for more questioning.
Special counsel Robert Mueller unsealed his first charges on Monday in a wide-ranging investigation into Russian attempts to disrupt the presidential election and whether anyone close to Mr Trump was involved. Records in that case show that George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser, had frequent discussions with Russians last year and also trumpeted his connections in front of Mr Trump and Mr Sessions.
For months, journalists have revealed evidence that Mr Trump's associates had meetings with Russians during the campaign and the presidential transition. They represent the first concrete evidence that Mr Trump was personally told about ties between a campaign adviser and Russian officials.
At a March 31, 2016, meeting between Mr Trump and his foreign policy team, Papadopoulos introduced himself and said "that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President (Vladimir) Putin", according to court records.
"He went into the pitch right away," said Mr J. D. Gordon, a campaign adviser who attended the meeting. "He said he had a friend in London, the Russian ambassador, who could help set up a meeting with Putin." Mr Trump listened with interest. Mr Sessions vehemently opposed the idea, Mr Gordon recalled. "And he said that no one should talk about it because it might leak," he said.
Several of Mr Trump's campaign advisers attended the March 2016 meeting, and at least two of those advisers are now in the White House: communications director Hope Hicks, and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller.
Special counsel Robert Mueller unsealed his first charges on Monday in a wide-ranging investigation into Russian attempts to disrupt the presidential election and whether anyone close to Mr Trump was involved. Records in that case show that George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser, had frequent discussions with Russians in 2016 and also trumpeted his connections in front of Mr Trump and Mr Sessions.
After Mr Trump was sworn in, he could not escape questions about Russia. At a Feb 16, 2017, White House news conference, a reporter asked Mr Trump: "Can you say whether you are aware that anyone who advised your campaign had contacts with Russia during the course of the election?" "No," Mr Trump said. "Nobody that I know of. Nobody."
The White House has sought to portray Papadopoulos as an insignificant figure in the campaign. Mr Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer dealing with the Mueller investigation, said the administration stood behind the President's comments. "The evidence so far suggests he attended one meeting, said something about Russia and was immediately shut down by everyone in the room. It's very important to remember that he is not a criminal now because of anything he did for the campaign - he is a criminal because he initially lied to the FBI." A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
Mr Sessions faced similar questions in January before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when asked about contacts between the campaign and Russia. "I'm not aware of any of those activities," Mr Sessions said. He denied having any such contacts himself. Democrats in the Senate said on Thursday that they would push to have Mr Sessions return to the committee for further questioning.
The case against Papadopoulos was unsealed at the same time as an unrelated indictment against two other former campaign advisers, Paul Manafort and Richard Gates. A US judge on Thursday ordered the two to remain under house arrest while they await trial for money laundering and other charges.
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE