Russian leader denied in Detroit meeting Trump advisers

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, speaking in Detroit 12 days before the U.S. presidential election, denied his government was behind electronic hacking of Democratic Party officials and said he did not meet last summer with Trump campaign advisers at the Republican National Convention.

But Kislyak acknowledged talking with several members of Congress during the GOP convention, where he reportedly met now-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a Republican senator from Alabama who was also an adviser for President Donald Trump. The Central Intelligence Agency identified Russian officials as behind the DNC hack.

The Detroit News obtained archived footage of the ambassador’s appearance at a Detroit Economic Club event amid continued scrutiny over any contact or connections between Russia and the Trump campaign, which the president has likened to a “witch hunt.”

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey confirmed Monday his agency is probing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including links between “individuals associated with” the Trump campaign and any potential coordination.

Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers told members of the U.S. House Committee on Intelligence there is no evidence of any vote tampering in Michigan or other states.

In his Oct. 27 appearance in Detroit, Kislyak did not directly contradict subsequent reports of his summer meeting with Sessions, but he also skirted around some questions posed to him.

Sessions this month recused himself from any probe of suspected Russian meddling in the election after failing to disclose meeting twice with Kislyak during the campaign, including once during a Heritage Foundation event at the Republican convention. Sessions spoke in support of the Republican nominee on the first day of the GOP convention in July.

Kislyak denied meeting with Trump or his advisers at the convention but said he “met those people who came to see all ambassadors who were sitting in a special lounge” reserved for diplomatic officials.

“I was among those who were there,” he said, “talking to the members of Congress, a whole lot of people who cared to come to us and talk to us.”

Kislyak did not specifically mention the Heritage Foundation event that coincided with the convention, where he and other ambassadors reportedly talked with Sessions. The Washington Post reported Sessions also met with Kislyak last September in his Washington, D.C., office while he still served in the U.S. Senate on the Armed Services Committee.

The Detroit Economic Club luncheon featuring Kislyak was moderated by Jon Wolman, editor and publisher of The News, who asked Kislyak whether he had any contact with either the Trump or Clinton campaigns during the election.

“What do you call campaign? I was invited, for example, to both conventions,” Kislyak said, referencing the GOP gathering in Cleveland and the subsequent Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Kislyak attended the Republican convention but said he was unexpectedly called back to Moscow before the Democratic convention “for a reason that had nothing to do with the election.”

U.S. intelligence officials say Russia was responsible for hacking Democratic National Committee emails and have accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering an “influence campaign” to interfere in the presidential election.

While it is not typically controversial for a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee to meet with a foreign ambassador, Sessions has come under fire for saying he “did not have communications with the Russians” during his confirmation hearing for the attorney general post.

Democrats say Sessions “lied” under oath, but Trump has defended him as an “honest man,” who “could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional.”

“This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Trump’s first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned last month, saying he “inadvertently” gave Vice President Mike Pence “incomplete information” about his phone calls late last year with Kislyak. Flynn and the ambassador reportedly discussed sanctions imposed by the Obama administration on Russia for meddling in the election, a topic Flynn initially said did not come up.

Speaking in Detroit before the election, Kislyak denied any “government structure” in Russia was involved in any political hacking – “it’s a fact of life,” he said – and largely attempted to avoid direct discussion of Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“The way Russia has become a factor in your elections is unexpected and unneeded and most probably isn’t helping Russian-American relations,” Kislyak said. “We have become kind of collateral damage in the fight between two parties here.”

The Russian ambassador bemoaned the state of diplomatic relations between the two countries, which have soured in recent years, particularly when the United States imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 following Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

U.S. officials have also criticized Russia for suspending a nuclear non-proliferation treaty, military action to support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and more. Kislyak recognized the disputes but largely attributed them to “different narratives” of the same events.

“We are ready to work with any president that is going to be elected by the people of the United States,” he said at the time. “We are a serious nation. We understand the United States is a big country with a lot of inertia in the policies, and whoever is elected is not going to make a U-turn on a single issue anytime soon.”

A Putin spokesman told CNN earlier this month that Kislyak was doing his job by discussing bilateral relations with Trump advisers and “probably” had meetings with people connected with Clinton’s campaign. He described potential contact between the ambassador and “people working in think tanks advising Hillary or advising people working for Hillary.”

“There were no meetings about electoral process,” said Putin press secretary Dmitry Sergeyevich Peskov. “In no way it should be percepted as interference in electoral process.”