Attorney General Jeff Sessions
announced late Thursday that he will recuse himself from direct involvement and oversight of pending Justice Department and FBI investigations of Russian influence in the 2016 Presidential elections. The track leading to his decision is a bit muddy.
When Sessions, was interviewed in confirmation hearings in January, he denied having contact with Russian officials. In the questioning, fellow Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Sessions, “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.” Sessions was also asked in the Judiciary Committee hearing by Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) what he would do if he learned of any 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,” he responded. He added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
As late as Wednesday night Sessions office issued a statement in which Sessions said, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
It was only when the Washington Post filed a report which disclosed the events, on September 8 of last year in which Senator Sessions, then a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee met with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in his office on two occasions. There was an earlier occasion as well, in July at a Heritage Foundation event, where following Sessions’ speech, a small group of diplomats including Kislyak chatted.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores tried unsuccessfully to parse Sessions’ testimony by claiming that Sessions was not interacting with Kislyak as a representative of the Trump campaign. The problem with that is it contradicts Sessions’ own comments to Franken in which he described himself as a campaign surrogate.
Today, some notable former colleagues of Sessions called for the Attorney General to recuse himself. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said it “would be best for him and the country” if Sessions recused himself from investigations. He was later joined by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in recommending recusal. On the House side, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz told MSNBC that, “Based on what we’ve read — and the information is not complete — I think the attorney general should further clarify and I do think he’s going to need to recuse himself at this point”.
In officially confirming his decision to recuse, Sessions as part of his issued statement, said, “My staff recommended recusal. They said that since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation.”
In a late breaking development related to this story, the Trump administration is acknowledging a report from the New Yorker that not only did Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner meet with Ambassador Kislyak at Trump Tower together with General Michael Flynn in December, but also that another campaign foreign policy advisor, Carter Page, met with Kislyak at the Heritage Foundation event during the GOP National Convention. Without specifically admitting the contact, Page says he “never did anything improper in my activities related to Russia, both last year and throughout the quarter century that I have been traveling to that country.”
A further complication – and indication that these developments have legs, is the story coming out of the Wall Street Journal about an FBI inquiry that was already in motion, described by the Journal as “part of a wide-ranging U.S. counterintelligence investigation into possible communications between members of Mr. Trump’s campaign team and Russian operatives.” And the New York Times reports that:
American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials—and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin—and associates of President-elect Trump. Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.
All of these developments portend a pitched partisan battle in Washington with Democrats now lining up to accuse Sessions of giving perjured testimony to Congress, though realistically, it seems like an extreme longshot to make such an accusation stick. Not because Sessions’ testimony wasn’t incomplete and misleading, but because the standards for proving intent are likely a threshold too high to reach.
Even Congressman Darrell Issa (R- CA, 49) former head of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, Friday last called for an appointment of a Special Prosecutor to handle an independent investigation on Russia’s attempts to influence the election. He has since backed off, no doubt, as the result of pressure from his party and the White House.
It may not matter – that horse is already out of the corral and tracks are leading in multiple directions.