The Washington Post, in yet another bombshell story, reports:
“Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Justice Department officials said, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow during Sessions’ confirmation hearing to become attorney general.
“One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race.”
During Sessions’ confirmation hearing, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked him what he would do if it came out that anyone associated with the Trump campaign had contact with the Russians in the course of the 2016 campaign. Sessions said, “Sen. Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities.” That wasn’t the truth, since he participated in discussions.
He continued, “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 am unable to comment on it.”
His spokeswoman argues that when they spoke, Sessions was not acting as a surrogate, but rather, in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But The Post’s reporting has so far found no senators on that panel who met with Kislyak last year.
The Post report continues:
“In January, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Sessions for answers to written questions. ’Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?’ Leahy wrote.
“Sessions responded with one word: ’No.’ ”
The accuracy of that depends on whether he was contacted “about” the election.
In written questions, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked, “Will you commit that, if you are confirmed as Attorney General, you will recuse yourself from any investigation into whether President-elect Trump or any of his family, campaign staff, business associates or advisors had any communication with Russian officials or operatives during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, or had any connection to, knowledge of, or involvement in Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election?”
Sessions responded, “I am not aware of a basis to recuse myself from such investigations. However, if a specific matter arose where I believed my impartiality might reasonably be questioned, I would consult with Department ethics officials regarding the most appropriate way to proceed. As I made clear at my confirmation hearing, I will always be fair and work within the law and the established procedures of the Department.”
How he could not see that his own communications would be at issue is puzzling.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., flat out accused Sessions of “lying under oath.” She called for him to resign as attorney general, declaring him “not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country.”
Sessions’ position is increasingly untenable. According to another Post report:
“House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said during an appearance on MSNBC Thursday morning that Sessions should bow out to maintain ’the trust of the American people.’
“Minutes later, House Oversight and Government Reform committee chairman Jason Chaffetz joined McCarthy’s call, tweeting that ’AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.’ ”
There are two issues here: Must Sessions recuse himself, and did he mislead the Senate?
As to the first, he cannot be both a subject of inquiry and the investigator. His own conversations are of material interest to the investigation. He has no choice but to recuse himself. “He clearly has to recuse,” Harvard law professor Larry Tribe told me. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee (and is a former prosecutor), succinctly told me, “Attorney General Sessions should recuse himself from investigations related to Russian interference in our democracy. He said he would if there was a conflict of interest, and it is clear that there is.”
At least one conservative legal scholar agrees.
“It seems to me that he has to recuse himself from the decisions about the investigation into Russian efforts to influence our elections — at the very least to avoid the appearance of a conflict even if nothing untoward happened,” says John Yoo, former Justice Department lawyer in the George W. Bush administration. “That means the decision will fall to the Deputy AG, Rod Rosenstein.”
Others were more heated in their assessments. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Md., ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, put out a written statement, declaring, “It is inconceivable that even after [former National Security Adviser] Michael Flynn was fired for concealing his conversations with the Russians that Attorney General Sessions would keep his own conversations secret for several more weeks.”
Cummings said Sessions’ statement denying contact “was demonstrably false, yet he let it stand for weeks — and he continued to let it stand even as he watched the President tell the entire nation he didn’t know anything about anyone advising his campaign talking to the Russians.” He concluded, “Attorney General Sessions should resign immediately, and there is no longer any question that we need a truly independent commission to investigate this issue.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., whose resolution of inquiry to demand information on the Russia investigation was voted down on a party-line vote (!), told me, “If the Washington Post revelations are accurate, Attorney General Sessions must at the very least recuse himself — not only because his impartiality is now tainted, but he may now be a subject of investigation himself.” He added, “It is now abundantly clear to anyone watching this administration’s conduct that an investigation, conducted by an independent prosecutor, is critical to getting the truth given all we know and all we have yet to find out.”
Other Democrats echoed that demand.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, Calif., the ranking Democrat on the CIA Subcommittee of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, issued the following statement Wednesday night, which read in part, “It’s time for the Attorney General to immediately step aside from any investigation involving ties between President Trump and Russia. Reports that Trump advisor Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador to the United States twice last year, but failed to disclose those contacts when specifically asked during his confirmation hearing, are cause for great concern.”
Now, it is possible — but unlikely — that Sessions did not recall the meetings with the Russian ambassador. His excuse — that he was not officially acting as a surrogate or that the conversation was not about the campaign — doesn’t absolve him over his blanket statement to Franken that he was unaware of contacts or his assertion to Durbin that he didn’t know of any reason he would need to recuse himself in an investigation of campaign figures speaking with Russian figures.
He should be immediately recalled to the Senate to explain his actions. Talk of “perjury” is premature, since such a charge would require, among other things, an intent to deceive. But members of Congress plainly think that Sessions was trying to hide something.
Nadler told me, “If it turns out he lied under oath, he of course will be subject to criminal prosecution and should immediately resign.” Swalwell likewise stated, “At best, he was careless with a subject of great importance; at worst, like General Michael Flynn, the Attorney General lied about prior contacts with Russia.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, on Monday, Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who has been cheerleading for Trump and denying a need to investigate, finally came out with a statement agreeing to examine the Russia scandal, including contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. CNN reported:
“Tensions escalated Monday between Nunes and the top Democrat working on the Russia investigation, Rep. Adam Schiff, after Nunes said he had seen no evidence yet of Russian officials communicating with Trump campaign aides and Schiff said it was too early to tell.
“Schiff later told CNN’s Erin Burnett that if high-ranking intelligence officials have been communicating with the White House about the investigation, it ’threatens the integrity of the organizations and I think they ought to call a halt to that.’ ”
The question at this point is whether any Republican, especially one enlisted to help spin Trump’s defense, can be entrusted with this investigation. Given the latest development, the answer for more and more Americans will be an emphatic no.
Rubin is a Washington Post columnist.