The Trump administration’s back-to-back controversies over its Russian ties now have at least one thing in common: Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Moscow’s top diplomat in the US has become the Kevin Bacon of the Trump White House’s Russia imbroglio. A Washington fixture with a sprawling network, he has emerged as the central figure in the investigations into Trump advisers’ connections with Russia.
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In a matter of weeks, contact with Kislyak led to the firing of a top adviser to the president and yesterday prompted calls for the attorney general to resign. Separately, a White House official confirmed Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn met with Kislyak at Trump Tower in December for what the official called a brief courtesy meeting.
Flynn was pushed out of the White House last month after officials said he misled Vice President Mike Pence about whether he and the ambassador had discussed US sanctions against Russia in a phone call. At issue yesterday were two meetings between Sessions and Kislyak, one in July and another in September, at the height of concern over Russia’s involvement in hacking of Democratic officials’ emails accounts.
Intelligence officials have since concluded Moscow ordered the hacks to tilt the election toward Trump. In his confirmation hearing, the Alabama Republican denied having contact with any Russian officials, neglecting to mention the meetings with Kislyak, which were first reported by the Washington Post. The Russian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
Although the White House dismissed the revelation as part of a political witch hunt, Sessions’ former colleagues took the omission seriously. At the urging of some in his own party, Sessions recused himself from the Department of Justice’s investigation. Still, Democrats called for him to step down.
Observers note Kislyak is a somewhat unlikely figure to cause controversy. Over the course of a long diplomatic career, he’s led the life of a somewhat typical global envoy making himself a reliable presence on the circuit of receptions, teas and forums that make up the calendar of any ambassador. Kislyak, who was appointed to his post in 2008, is regularly spotted walking around town, heading to and from meetings.
Early in his tenure, he often opened the doors of the Russian Embassy, hosting dinners for foreign policy professionals, Pentagon officials, journalists and Capitol Hill staffers.