As with every other bit of news which comes out with regards to Russia and the Trump administration, the news that Jeff Sessions spoke with the Russian ambassador raises more questions. Without knowing what he spoke to him about, it is not possible to determine how much this matters. It might be no big deal if the Russians were just trying to get more information about Donald Trump, but it could be the biggest political scandal in American history if it were to turn out that the Trump campaign was actively working with Russia to attempt to rig the election.
As of now we only have evidence that Russia probably tried to influence the election, with questionable impact considering that the material released by WikiLeaks all appears to be factual. There is no evidence at this time of any conspiracy between Trump and Russia, and this needs to be investigated independent of any partisan concerns.
Having Sessions involved creates two new wrinkles to the case. First, he lied to the Senate about the matter. Secondly, as Attorney General, it is impossible to see how he could be trusted to be involved in this investigation. He has agreed to recuse himself from the investigation, which is the least he could do, but only after having been exposed for lying to the Senate.
Many are calling for more. Arn Pearson, a senior fellow at People For the American Way, wrote in USA Today that Sessions has destroyed his credibility and must go:
Not only is Sessions’ impartiality being questioned, his honesty to Congress and the American people has been thrown into doubt. Sessions must not only recuse himself from future investigations into the Russian influence scandal, which he did on Thursday, he must resign.
Lying under oath and intentionally making a false and misleading statement to Congress are crimes under federal law. In 1999, Sessions voted to convict Bill Clinton of perjury in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, having earlier said that, “I have no doubt perjury qualifies under the Constitution as a high crime.”
Whether or not Sessions did in fact commit perjury is a matter for Congress and the judicial process to decide, but there is certainly sufficient cause for investigation. What is not in doubt is that he seriously misled the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sessions is doing his best to equivocate, saying he did not discuss the elections with Kislyak and met with him as a member of the Armed Services Committee, not the Trump campaign. But that wasn’t Sen. Al Franken’s question. Franken asked about any communications with the Russian government, and Sessions responded with his blanket statement about not having had communications with the Russians.
Sessions’ explanation doesn’t hold much water. The Washington Post reached all 26 members of the 2016 Armed Services Committee including Chairman John McCain, and Sessions was the only one who met with Kislyak that year. And Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador came in the heat of the presidential campaign: first in July — the same month Sessions formally nominated Trump for president at the Republican National Convention and delegates were making pro-Russia changes to their platform; and then again in September — when concerns about Russian hacking dominated the news.
It is hard to imagine how Sessions could think those meetings were not worth mentioning during his confirmation hearing.
Richard Painter agreed in an op-ed in The New York Times. He compared this to when Richard G. Kleindienst was forced to resign as Attorney General in 1972 during the Watergate scandal:
Once again, we see an attorney general trying to explain away misleading testimony in his own confirmation hearing. A spokeswoman for Mr. Sessions says that “there was absolutely nothing misleading” about his answer because he did not communicate with the ambassador in his capacity as a Trump campaign surrogate. His contacts with the Russian ambassador, he claims, were made in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
That may or may not have been the case (individual senators ordinarily do not discuss committee business with ambassadors of other countries, particularly our adversaries). Regardless, Mr. Sessions did not truthfully and completely testify. If he had intended to say that his contacts with the Russians had been in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and not for the Trump campaign, he could have said that. He then would have been open to the very relevant line of questioning about what those contacts were, and why he was unilaterally talking with the ambassador of a country that was a longstanding adversary of the United States…
President Trump has already fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for misleading Vice President Pence about his conversations with the Russians. Misleading the United States Senate in testimony under oath is at least as serious. We do not yet know all the facts, but we know enough to see that Attorney General Sessions has to go as well.