Lobbyist for Russian interests says he attended dinners hosted by Sessions
It is possible that Sessions was not fully aware of Richard Burt’s lobbying history, despite his affiliation with Russian interests being fairly well known in Washington circles.world Updated: Jun 17, 2017 00:26 IST
An American lobbyist for Russian interests who helped craft an important foreign policy speech for Donald Trump has confirmed that he attended two dinners hosted by Jeff Sessions during the 2016 campaign, apparently contradicting the attorney general’s sworn testimony given this week.
Sessions testified under oath on Tuesday that he did not believe he had any contacts with lobbyists working for Russian interests over the course of Trump’s campaign. But Richard Burt, a former ambassador to Germany during the Reagan administration, who has represented Russian interests in Washington, told the Guardian that he could confirm previous media reports that stated he had contacts with Sessions at the time.
“I did attend two dinners with groups of former Republican foreign policy officials and Senator Sessions,” Burt said.
Asked whether Sessions was unfamiliar with Burt’s role as a lobbyist for Russian interests – a fact that is disclosed in public records – or had any reason to be confused about the issue, Burt told the Guardian that he did not know.
Several media reports published before Trump’s election in November noted that Burt advised then candidate Trump on his first major foreign policy speech, a role that brought him into contact with Sessions personally.
Burt, who previously served on the advisory board of Alfa Capital Partners, a private equity fund where Russia’s Alfa Bank was an investor and last year was lobbying on behalf of a pipeline company that is now controlled by Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled energy conglomerate, first told Politico in October that he had been invited to two dinners that were hosted by Sessions last summer, at the height of the presidential campaign.
Sessions, a former senator for Alabama who was chairman of the Trump campaign’s national security committee, reportedly invited Burt so that he could discuss issues of national security and foreign policy.
When John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona who is a frequent critic of Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin, asked Sessions in a hearing this week before the Senate intelligence committee about whether the attorney general had ever had “any contacts with any representative, including any American lobbyist or agent of any Russian company” during the 2016 campaign, Sessions said he did not.
“I don’t believe so,” Sessions said.
Other outlets, including the New Yorker magazine and Reuters, also reported last year that Burt had contributed his views to Trump’s speech. When NPR interviewed Burt in May 2016 about the talk, he said he was “asked to provide a draft for that speech, and parts of that draft survived into the final [version]”.
The speech, delivered on 27 April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel, was attended by Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and is now at the heart of new questions about Sessions’ personal dealings with Russian officials. Sessions recused himself from oversight of the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in March after it emerged that he held two undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador last year.
In his explosive testimony before Congress earlier this month, former FBI director James Comey, who was fired by Trump, suggested that he had known that Sessions would eventually have to recuse himself from the Russia probe, but declined to explain the details in public.
Questions directed at Sessions by lawmakers days later – after they had privately been briefed by Comey – suggested it related to a third alleged encounter with Kislyak that had not been disclosed, this time at the Mayflower Hotel speech. In his confirmation hearing, Sessions had told lawmakers under oath that he had never had communication with Russian officials.
This week, in the latest hearing, Sessions said he may have “possibly” had an “encounter” with the Russian ambassador during a reception at the Mayflower, but could not recall any specific conversations.
The speech was hosted by the Center for the National Interest, a Washington thinktank. Burt sits on the group’s board of directors.
While Burt has not played a central role in the FBI and congressional investigation, Sessions’ response about his dealings with American lobbyists – which appears to contradict previous reports that Burt and Sessions communicated during the campaign – could invite more scrutiny of the attorney general’s testimony.
It is also possible that Sessions was not fully aware of Burt’s lobbying history, although Burt’s affiliation with Russian interests is fairly well known in Washington circles.
The former ambassador is managing director of the Europe and Eurasia practice at McLarty Associates. In that role, he’s served as a lobbyist for the New European Pipeline AG, the company behind Nord Stream II. At the time the work started, Gazprom, the Russian state-owned oil company, owned a 50% stake, but it now owns the entire entity. The pipeline, which is seen as making Europe more dependent on Russian energy exports, was opposed by the Obama administration.
Burt also serves on the board of Deutsche Bank ’s closed-end fund group, according to his online biography.
The former ambassador and lobbyist appears to have recently sought to downplay his role in helping Trump to formulate the Mayflower speech, telling the Daily Beast earlier this year that he had transmitted his counsel through a third party intermediary.
In the speech, Trump said an “easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia – from a position of strength – is possible” and that “common sense says this cycle of hostility must end”.
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
Asked about Burt and the exchange between McCain and Sessions, Carter Page, another former foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign and a central figure in the Russia investigation, said he found “the entire line of questioning to be near the pinnacle of witch hunt tactics”.
“In the grand scheme of things, the severe civil rights abuses by Clinton-Obama-Comey regime carried out against myself and other supporters of the Trump campaign in their illegal attempts to influence the 2016 election will help clarify how irrelevant all these petty side-questions are,” he said.
Page added that he was writing a book on his experience and that he was “still in discussions” with publishers.