Maybe there really is nothing there.
Maybe the Trump administration is the victim of a remarkable and ongoing series of totally innocent coincidences, from the accidental yet near-perfect alignment of President Trump’s foreign policy with that of Vladimir Putin to Trump’s selection of a campaign manager and national security adviser with troubling Russian ties.
But damn, people.
In the latest twist, we have the revelation that as a U.S. senator and a prominent member of Trump’s campaign, Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador twice during the course of the campaign. The first occurred in a side conversation at a public event during the Republican National Convention in July; the second came in September, in a private conversation in Sessions’ office.
Yet in his Senate confirmation hearing as attorney general in January, the following exchange took place with Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota:
Franken: “If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
Sessions: “Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
In that sworn testimony, Sessions clearly understood that he would be considered a member of the Trump campaign. He also clearly stated that he had had no communications with the Russians in the course of the campaign, a fact that was not and is not true. His spokesperson now explains that Sessions did not mention those meetings because he did not think them relevant because they occurred in the context of his membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee, not in his campaign role.
There are three problems with that explanation.
- The first meeting occurred in an event tied to the GOP convention, which was by definition a political campaign setting, not an official action by a member of the Armed Services Committee. Even if it was innocent, it should have been disclosed not concealed.
- The Washington Post, which broke the story, contacted all 26 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Of the 20 who responded, all said they had no meetings with the Russian ambassador in the time period in which Sessions had two such meetings.
- Claims of communication and perhaps even collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials were already controversial when Sessions testified to the Senate. That’s why he was asked that question in the first place. Given that background, Sessions’ decision to conceal his contacts with Ambassador Kislyak to his fellow senators cannot help but look evasive and perhaps perjurious. It is not up to the witness to decide whether such meetings were relevant, and as a former federal prosecutor Sessions is fully aware of that fact. He would be furious with a witness who had done what he did.
Now, in yet another of these perhaps innocent yet troubling coincidences, Sessions sits as attorney general, the nation’s top law enforcement official, where he is responsible for overseeing the FBI’s criminal investigation into Russian hacking and meddling in our presidential elections. His close ties with the Trump campaign had already made that arrangement untenable, and this latest development has some Democrats demanding his outright resignation.
That’s probably premature at best. However, Session’s recusal from the case and the appointment of an independent, special counsel to oversee the investigation from this point forward are absolutely necessary if the public is to have confidence in its very important conclusions, whatever they prove to be.