Ex-Trump aide testifies he told Jeff Sessions about Russia trip

Posted at 8:13 AM, Nov 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-03 08:13:00-04

Former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Pageprivately testified Thursday that he mentioned to Jeff Sessions he was traveling to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign — as new questions emerge about the attorney general’s comments to Congress about Russia and the Trump campaign.

During more than six hours of closed-door testimony, Page said that he informed Sessions about his coming July 2016 trip to Russia, which Page told CNN was unconnected to his campaign role. Page described the conversation to CNN after he finished talking to the House intelligence committee.

Sessions’ discussion with Page will fuel further scrutiny about what the attorney general knew about connections between the Trump campaign and Russia — and communications about Russia that he did not disclose despite a persistent line of questioning in three separate hearings this year.

Page’s testimony was one of the more highly anticipated events in the congressional Russia investigations, given the scrutiny he’s faced because of his connections to Russia and his visible role pushing back about his Russia ties in nationally televised interviews.

Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican who is leading the House intelligence committees Russia probe, confirmed to CNN that Page told the committee he had informed Sessions about his trip, though Conaway downplayed its significance.

“I don’t make anything sinister out of it. He said Sessions did not react or comment one way or the other,” Conaway said in an interview. “If I were Sessions, I wouldn’t have recalled it either. It was just in passing. He was walking out of the room. A guy he had never met before, grabs him, ‘Hey, I’m out on the team. I changed my travel plans to go to Russia.'”

Page told CNN after the interview that he informed Sessions about the trip during a group dinner in Washington, and that he mentioned it in passing.

“Back in June 2016, I mentioned in passing that I happened to be planning to give a speech at a university in Moscow,” Page told CNN. “Completely unrelated to my limited volunteer role with the campaign and as I’ve done dozens of times throughout my life. Understandably, it was as irrelevant then as it is now. If it weren’t for the dodgy dossier and all the chaos that those complete lies had created, my passing comment’s complete lack of relevance should go without saying.”

Page said it was the only time he met Sessions.

A source familiar with the meeting told CNN that the encounter occurred at a dinner at the Capitol Hill Club, attended by members of the Trump national security team, including Sessions. Near the end of the dinner, Page approached Sessions to say hello and thanked the then-senator for the dinner, and Page also mentioned he was headed to Russia. Sessions didn’t respond and moved on to the next person waiting to shake his hand, this source said.

A Justice spokesperson declined to comment.

Several lawmakers from both parties described the session as meandering, at-times confusing and contradictory. Page did not have a lawyer present, which is highly unusual, lawmakers said.

Conaway said that Page was “fulsome” in his answers and he answered all of the questions the committee asked.

Moreover, Page reached a rare agreement to allow the committee to release a transcript of his testimony, something that will happen early next week. Some members said his testimony will help move the investigation forward, though Page told the committee that the Trump campaign made him sign a non-disclosure agreement.

“It was terrific to have the opportunity to help clear the record as to the falsehoods from the dodgy dossier, which started this whole thing against me in the final two months before the election,” Page told reporters after his marathon session, referring to the Trump-Russia dossier produced by former British agent Christopher Steele. “I’m glad the truth is finally becoming known.”

Page interacted with Sessions because the then-Alabama senator was leading the national security team for the Trump campaign.

Sessions is already facing new questions over his testimony on Capitol Hill about Russia and the Trump campaign following the revelations this week that he rejected a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed by foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty for making a false statement to the FBI about contacts with people connected with the Russian government.

At a June Senate intelligence committee hearing, Sessions testified that he wasn’t aware of any conversations between “anyone connected to the Trump campaign” and Russians about “any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States.”

In another exchange with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sessions was asked if Page met with Russian officials “at any point during the campaign.”

“I don’t know,” Sessions responded.

Asked at a Senate hearing last month whether he believed Trump campaign surrogates had communications with Russians, Sessions replied, “I did not and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened.”

Democrats on the Senate intelligence and judiciary committees are interested in formally asking Sessions to clarify his testimony, according to a Senate aide.

Page traveled to Moscow for a few days in early July 2016, where he gave a lecture critical of US foreign policy and later met with Russians whom he described as academic scholars and business leaders. He has said that the topic of sanctions might have come up in his conversations but that he was not there as an emissary of the Trump campaign. After the trip, the FBI grew concerned that he had been compromised by Russian operatives, US officials previously told CNN.

The committee has asked Page to produce more documents, according to members, to comply with the subpoena they previously issued.