Why Did Sessions Pivot 180 Degrees in His Views on Russia?

Amidst the revelations about AG Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sarah Wildman notes that he turned on a dime with regards to his position on Russia after joining the Trump campaign. Here is a quote from Sessions speaking on the Senate floor in September 2008:

I would suggest something more is at stake here, and I think it is something that the Poles and the Czechs and the Georgians and the Ukrainians and the Estonians and the Latvians and the Lithuanians understand full well, and that is that Putin desires to reestablish hegemony over the former Soviet satellites. They think they have a right to tell Poland whether to undertake a military partnership with the United States. They have no right whatsoever to do so. Poland is glad to be rid of them. They are glad to be out from under the Soviet boot. They have no intention whatsoever of allowing themselves to fall back under their dominance. They have values that are close to our values. They want to be part of our heritage and the Western heritage.

Wildman documents that Sessions backed up those words with votes by doing things like taking a position against the New START treaty in 2010 because it wasn’t tough enough on Russia and arguing for even tougher sanctions in 2014 after Putin’s incursions into Ukraine.

But all of that tough talk shifted when he got involved with the Trump campaign. Almost immediately, in March 2016,  he said, “an argument can be made there is no reason for the U.S. and Russia to be at this loggerheads.” Then in July, he said this during an interview with Jim Acosta.

…this whole problem with Russia is really disastrous for America, for Russia and for the world. Donald Trump is right. We need to figure out a way to end this cycle of hostility that’s putting this country at risk, costing us billions of dollars in defense, and creating hostilities.

What caused this 180 degree pivot? One area of potential inquiry would be the connection between Sessions and Carter Page that Martin mentioned yesterday. During an interview with the Washington Post in March 2016, Trump named Page as one of his foreign policy advisors. That sent a lot of folks scrambling because not many people had ever heard of him. Julia Ioffe was one of those people. In doing an expose on Page, she tried to determine how he made the connection with Trump. Here is what one person told her about that.

Someone else told me that the Page connection was Rick Dearborn, Sessions’ chief of staff, who hired Page because Dearborn knew nothing about foreign policy but needed to put together a foreign policy staff for Trump’s Alexandria, Virginia, policy shop and he happened to know Page.

By September 2016, Michael Isikoff reported that Page had met with Igor Sechin (a close confidant of Vladimir Putin) in July and he took a leave of absence from the Trump campaign. In January 2017, Sean Spicer claimed that Trump didn’t even know Page.

It is also important to keep in mind what the Steele dossier says about Carter Page.

The dossier claims that Carter Page was used by Manafort as an “intermediary” between the campaign and high-level Kremlin officials.

Specifically, the dossier alleges that Page traveled to Moscow in July 2016, where he met with the president of Russia’s state oil company Rosneft, Igor Sechin. An associate of Sechin’s, the dossier claims, “said that the Rosneft President was so keen to lift personal and corporate Western sanctions imposed on the company, that he offered Page and his associates the brokerage of up to a 19 percent (privatised) stake in Rosneft.”

The dossier says that Page “expressed interest” in the offer but was “noncommittal.” It also says that Page promised that “sanctions on Russia would be lifted” if Trump were elected.

On December 7th (one month after Trump was elected), Rosneft sold 19.5 percent of shares, worth roughly $11 billion. So the dossier accurately described both Page’s July meeting with Sechin and the offer to sell the shares.

If it is true that AG Sessions was the connection between Carter Page and the Trump campaign, it not only explains why he did an about-face on his views about Russia, it puts him right in the middle of the whole scandal about the efforts of that country to influence the 2016 election.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.