Blood in the water? Sessions grilled over pre-election Russia contacts

The Democrats might have been despondent following the positive press coverage which the president received after his address to a joint session of Congress this week, but now they have a new toy to play with which may cheer them up a bit. The latest “scandal” to erupt out of the Trump administration is the revelation that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had “been in contact” with the Russian ambassador’s office prior to the election. This becomes immediately problematic since he was asked about it (under oath) and did not disclose the incidents at the time. (Associated Press)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions had two conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the presidential campaign season last year, contact that immediately fueled calls for him to recuse himself from a Justice Department investigation into Russian interference in the election.

Sessions, an early supporter of President Donald Trump and a policy adviser to the Republican candidate, did not disclose those communications at his confirmation hearing in January when asked what he would do if “anyone affiliated” with the campaign had been in contact with the Russian government.

Sessions answered that he had not had communication with the Russians.

This is a pain in the neck for the Trump administration and for Sessions himself, but it appears to be something which is headed more for a couple of bad news cycles than any sort of criminal investigation. To be sure, the Democrats are trying to make the most of this, with Elijah Cummings immediately calling for the Attorney General to resign followed quickly by the same demand from Nancy Pelosi. A deeper look at the details makes that seem unlikely at best, however.

At the root of it is the fact that Sessions was asked specifically about contact with the Russians during his confirmation hearings in January. Al Franken had pressed him on the question and elicited a negative response from the future Attorney General, so in that light one might assume that they’ve got them on a charge of lying under oath. In reality, this all comes down to a game of semantics and the “reasonable person” test in terms of specifically what Sessions was asked and how he responded.

Franken specifically asked him, “if there was anyone from the Trump campaign who had been in contact with the Russians during the campaign.” There are two elements to that question which toss the subject into a rather wide gray area. First of all, was Jeff Sessions “part of the campaign” prior to the election? He was certainly an early supporter and had even been referred to as a “surrogate” by cable news figures when he appeared for interviews, but he was still a sitting senator with a full-time job. Second, there was a fairly definitive tone to the questions he was answering because Franken was seeking more information about members of the campaign who may or may not have been privately reaching out to the Russians to lay the groundwork for future dealings between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in the event that the latter was elected. While it’s true that Jeff Sessions was “in contact” with the Russian ambassador, his first meeting was one of many he had with various foreign envoys in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The second was when the Russian ambassador was part of a group of foreign dignitaries who approached Sessions and greeted him after he gave a speech.

When you look at the details of those “meetings” and place it in context with the situation he was being asked about during the confirmation hearings, it’s obvious that he wasn’t having any private dinners to discuss campaign matters or future relations between Trump and Putin. It was just part of his job. But this doesn’t relieve the Attorney General of all responsibility here. I mean, let’s face it… That was a horrible way to answer the questions during confirmation. All he would’ve had to do was to say something to the effect of, I ran into the Russian ambassador a couple of times last year in my capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee but no, we obviously never discussed anything to do with possible future relations involving the Trump administration. If he’d done that we wouldn’t be having this discussion now, but as it stands, Sessions is left looking as if he’s playing word games to cover up a lie.

So in some ways, you can say that this was a self-inflicted wound, though not by Donald Trump himself. Democrats and the media (but I repeat myself) will no doubt have a field day with it for the next week or two and attempt to sweep away any good press which the President’s recent speech may have engendered. But in terms of knocking the Attorney General out of his office or initiating some sort of legal proceeding, color me skeptical.