Are we jumping the gun here just a tad? The attorney general needs to go because he didn’t disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador that had nothing to do with the questions Sens. Al Franken (D-MN) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked during Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing. Former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter used former Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst to make his case [emphasis mine]:
Several Democratic senators were concerned about rumors of White House interference in a Justice Department antitrust suit against International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, a campaign contributor to the Republican National Committee. They asked Kleindienst several times if he had ever spoken with anyone at the White House about the I.T.T. case. He said he had not.
That wasn’t true. Later, after Kleindienst was confirmed as attorney general, the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and his team uncovered an Oval Office tape recording of a phone call in which Nixon told Kleindiesnt to drop the I.T.T. case. Kleindienst claimed that he thought the senators’ questions were limited to a particular period, not the entire time during which the case was pending.
Jaworski didn’t buy it. He filed criminal charges against Kleindienst, who had earlier resigned as attorney general. Eventually Kleindienst pleaded guilty to failure to provide accurate information to Congress, a misdemeanor, for conduct that many observers believed amounted to perjury. He was also reprimanded by the Arizona State Bar.
Last month, during Mr. Sessions’s confirmation hearing for attorney general, Senator Al Franken, Democrat from Minnesota, asked Mr. Sessions what he would do if he learned of evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” Mr. Sessions answered, adding, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Mr. Sessions also, on his written Senate confirmation questionnaire, denied having had any communications about the 2016 election with the Russians.
We now know that Mr. Sessions had at least two conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States in July and September 2016 while Mr. Sessions was an adviser to the Trump campaign.
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.
Not for nothing, but aren’t we supposed to get all the facts before making a decision. With Flynn, he didn’t do anything wrong by speaking with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, but he misled the vice president about those conversations, which is inexcusable. Leaked transcripts from the calls caught the discrepancy, which separately is another serious matter; intelligence operatives seemingly leaking classified information to hamstring the Trump administration.
What about Franken and Leahy’s questions? Well, let’s take a look.
FRANKEN: CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week, that included information that “Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” These documents also allegedly say “there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.” Again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so, you know.
But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious, and 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.
FRANKEN: Very well.
[LEAHY:] 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] RESPONSE: No.
T.A. Franks had this to say about both in Vanity Fair in which he also noted that there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of subversion that Democrats are lusting after [emphasis mine]:
The question [Leahy asked] was not whether Sessions had been in contact with anyone in the Russian government, but rather whether Sessions had been contact with anyone in the Russian government about the 2016 election. Assuming that Sessions never discussed the election with Kislyak—and no one has been able to offer any evidence that he did—then there was nothing false in his response. There wasn’t even anything misleading. Zero story.
Now, unless you’ve gone into full “time for some game theory” mode, you would be hard-pressed to miss that that “communications with the Russians” is shorthand for “communications of the sort that CNN is alleging,” not “any sort of communication with any Russian official ever.”
Regarding Kleindienst, the fact that the “anyone at the White House” turned out to be the president of the United States who ordered him to stop a lawsuit that would impact a donor to the RNC is a tad different than the meetings with the Russian ambassador, one of which was at an Obama White House sponsored event, in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Members of Congress meet with foreign officials all the time. There is no evidence that any of Sessions’ rendezvous with Kislyak involved discussions about the 2016 election. Now, there may be some questions regarding why Sessions felt the need to fully hide these meetings since they seem to be well within his capacity as a U.S. senator, but the answers themselves hardly fit the perjury mold. In fact, right now, there really is no case of perjury. One related to a hypothetical about what he would do as AG if evidence were discovered showing communications between Trump surrogates and the Russian operatives, the other related directly to meeting between the Russians about the 2016 election. Sessions appears to have answered both truthfully—though he probably could have saved himself some heartburn by refusing to answer a hypothetical question. One I might add is based on a dossier whose contents have largely been unsubstantiated. What we do know is that Russian government officials talked to other Russians, but we don’t know what they talked about—talk about a bombshell (sarc.).
Sessions has recused himself from any investigation that involves the White House and the 2016 election. In a letter, He also informed the Senate Judiciary Committee that what he told them was truthful—and that his meetings with Kislyak were in is capacity as a U.S. senator. Senate Democrats want Sessions to return to Capitol Hill for more testimony.
Leahy asked about communications about the election. Franken asked about communications as a campaign surrogate. Sessions told the truth.— Sean Davis (@seanmdav) March 2, 2017
Put together a timeline on what Sessions did and said, and am now thinking that Dems are overplaying their hand. https://t.co/qSyBftV9Lf— Philip Bump (@pbump) March 2, 2017
Talked to two former federal prosecutors: Sessions won't face perjury charges based on the evidence at hand. https://t.co/sQW783zaSc— Philip Bump (@pbump) March 2, 2017