If you’re following the news that’s emerged from Washington over the past eighteen or so hours, you’ll have come to the conclusion that Jeff Sessions is either in trouble or very deep trouble. There doesn’t seem any way to unravel this mess without coming to one of those two conclusions.
The most compassionate reading of the events runs like this. Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, twice during 2016. The first meeting followed a Heritage Foundation speech that Sessions gave at the Republican National Convention in July. The ambassador was among a number of people that approached Sessions after the speech. The second meeting was in DC in September when Sessions was acting in his role as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Though other senators have denied that meeting the Russian ambassador has formed part of their duties, these encounters do happen from time to time in diplomatic circles. It was among many meetings that Sessions claimed to have had with foreign ambassadors. It was not therefore notable. When he was asked during his confirmation hearing about links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, he didn’t mention these two meetings because they weren’t part of his work for the Trump campaign. There is no case to answer. Move on.
This is, as I said, the most sympathetic reading of events. What makes the issue difficult for Sessions is that this really has next to nothing to do with what he did or did not say to the Russian ambassador. This, for the moment, has everything to do with the statements he made to Congress.
Conversely, the problem for Democrats is that neither of the questionable statements that Sessions made in the hearings lead directly to a charge of perjury. Take Session’s response to Senator Leahy. Leahy had asked: ‘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?’
Sessions answered ‘no’.
There it is. Unequivocal. He was not asked if he met Russian officials. He was asked if he spoke to Russian government about the 2016 election. This might be a matter of semantics but it’s an important matter of semantics.
If that was the only answer he gave, this would be a non-story. Unfortunately, for Sessions, this wasn’t the only answer. There was the denial he offered Senator Al Franken during those same hearings.
Franken asked: ‘If there was any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this (2016) campaign, what would you do?’
Sessions answered: ‘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.’
This contradicts the evidence that has since emerged. He did have communications with the Russians. Does that make his statement a lie? Well, at the very least, it’s not the truth but how you interpret that non-truth is, in the first instance, a matter of politics. If the politicians can agree that there was a lie involved, then it becomes a matter for the law.
Naturally, Democrats have rallied quickly. In their (predictable) opinion, Sessions lied to the Senate. They argue that he will have to resign as Attorney General and that this episode casts further doubt on the Trump administration’s contention that there’s ‘no there, there’ to the allegations of Russian involvement in their campaign. In this narrative, it then becomes a question of whether Sessions will be prosecuted. Perjuring oneself before Congress and whilst under oath is addressed in Section 1621 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code and the punishment includes fines up to $100,000 or anything up to five years in jail. It does, however, seem unlikely that a charge of perjury will follow. The part of Sessions’ answer to Franken that is most objectionable was not, in itself, the answer to the question. Legal experts believe that leaves enough room to make a perjury charge unlikely.
That leaves us stuck where we appear to be, going into Friday. There is a political standoff with no immediate relief. The Democrats have come out swinging and the White House has responded in kind. In truth, neither side has yet thrown a punch that lands any significant weight. Senator Chuck Schumer did what Senator Chuck Schumer does so well which is make a dramatic speech at a lectern but which amounted to not very much at all. The same is true of the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. It’s really been Al Franken who has again made most of the running on the Democratic side and, incidentally, is emerging as one of few big beasts on the Left. Unlike Schumer and Pelosi, he’s eschewing the drama and calling for answers. Given the slow burn nature of the investigations, it might be the sensible approach.
By the time Sessions appeared later on Thursday to recuse himself from any involvement in the investigations into Russia involvement with the 2016 election, there was still little that had been established with any force. By recusing himself, he might well have given enough ground to satisfy Republican senators. And that, ultimately, is where this story will either be made or it will fade. This story will only move if Republicans break against the Trump administration. Thus far, only Senator Lindsey Graham and House Oversight Chair Representative Jason Chaffetz have demanded that Sessions recuse himself from investigations into Russia and that, as we now know, he has already done. Marc Rubio who has been hawkish on Russia might well also break, as will a few Republicans representatives. This is not enough to threaten Sessions. It is, however, significant to the broader story of Trump’s links to Russia that we now have Republicans voicing concern about the administration.
Which way will it go?
Trump himself has thrown his weight behind Sessions, saying that he has ‘total’ confidence in his Attorney General but, of course, it might too early to say that this means much. Kellyanne Conway was relaying the President’s ‘full confidence’ in Michael Flynn in the immediate hours before he was asked to tender his resignation. Tonight an unnamed official inside the Trump administration has admitted that the White House didn’t know about Sessions meetings with the Russian ambassador. Is this a sign of the White House putting space between itself and their Attorney General? Again, it’s too early to say. The White House have every reason to get behind Sessions whereas they could cut Flynn away with minimal damage. Perversely, Flynn’s departure led to the strengthening of Trump’s foreign policy team with the appointment of H.R. McMaster. Sessions is a much bigger fish and it’s hard to see how the loss of Sessions would do anything but open a wound that puts real blood in the water. That is why the administration might well be right to wait this out. Unless more damning evidence emerges, there is little more the Democrats can do to push the story into deeper waters where all the killing of political careers is done.