How Donald Trump’s Russia problem became Jeff Sessions’s Russia problem — and vice versa.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions could have testified privately before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today about his ties to Russia. Instead, he chose to speak in an open hearing, streamed and broadcast live.
The most straightforward explanation for that choice is that Sessions wants to publicly deny the newest and most incendiary allegation against him: that Sessions met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak on three different occasions during the 2016 presidential campaign, and failed to admit to any of them during his confirmation hearings.
But there’s another reason: Sessions is a member of the Donald Trump administration (who, according to recent reporting, needs to curry favor with the boss). And Donald Trump really, really hates it when his people aren’t out there defending him on television.
If defending Trump is Sessions’s first task during the afternoon hearing, his second is defending himself. Somehow, Trump’s Russia problem has become Sessions’s Russia problem — and vice versa.
Senators are expected to press the attorney general on the latest Kisylak allegations. Sessions will also likely face questions on his ambiguous recusal from his department’s Russia investigation, and on its independence from Trump.
In his testimony, Sessions has the opportunity to repair his relationship with Trump or to clear the cloud of misconduct over his treatment of the Russia investigation. He almost certainly can’t do both at once.
Help yourself, or help your boss? It’s a brutal — and surprising — dilemma for one of the early architects of the Trump agenda, who until recently has been rewarded for his loyalty.
Sessions met with the Russian ambassador and then denied it. But how many times?
Jeff Sessions was a staunch Donald Trump ally back when most of the Republican Party was still hoping Trump would go away.
It made sense: Trump had found surprising success in the presidential primary by taking a hard line on immigration, terrorism and public disorder, the very issues Sessions had made a name for himself on (but few allies) over his career in the Senate. Sessions, for his part, helped fill in the policy gaps for a candidate who didn’t trouble himself much with the details: His staff went to Trump’s campaign (and later transition and administration) to work on policy, and Sessions himself was the official head of Trump’s policy shop.
When Trump nominated Sessions to serve as his attorney general after the election, he wasn’t just naming the official who’d be most important to carrying out his domestic-policy agenda (which was much more administrative than legislative when it came to immigration and criminal justice). He was naming someone who’d managed to enter his inner circle of most trusted advisers — the only person who appeared to move with full comfort in both Washington and Trumpworld.
The bromance wouldn’t last. But on January 10, Sessions stood before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing as perhaps the Trump administration’s most crucial appointee — and one of those least tainted by the questions of competence and integrity that had dogged many of Trump’s other advisers.
That’s when the trouble began.
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) asked Sessions: “If there was any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what would you do?”
Sessions replied, “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.”
That answer was consistent with what Sessions told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in a written questionnaire completed before the hearing; Leahy asked if Sessions had “been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election” and Sessions simply replied “no.” And it was consistent with Sessions’s security clearance form, which hadn’t documented any meetings with Russian officials.
None of those answers appear to have been true.
In March, the Washington Post reported that Sessions had met twice during the 2016 campaign with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak — once in June and once in September. (No other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee reported meeting Kislyak in 2016, according to the Post.)
While Sessions maintained that he hadn’t met Kislyak or anyone “to discuss issues of the campaign,” that didn’t quite cover his January protestation to Franken that “I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Under pressure from many Democrats and a few Republicans, Sessions announced he would recuse himself from the ongoing FBI investigation into contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government. He maintained, however, that those two meetings were his only contacts with Kislyak: “I don’t recall having met him before those two meetings,” he told a reporter during his recusal press conference.
But that might not be true either.
Did Sessions perjure himself by covering up not two meetings, but three?
Here’s what we know: On the night of April 27, 2016, both Sessions and Kislyak attended a foreign-policy speech given by Donald Trump at the Mayflower Hotel in DC. Both of them attended a VIP reception before the speech.
But did Sessions and Kisylak actually speak that night? This is where things get contested. The FBI appears to think they did — at least, that’s what some members of Congress are saying. (Reports from CNN indicate that FBI investigators aren’t sure whether they actually talked, or whether Kislyak “exaggerated” a brief encounter.) Sessions maintains he didn’t.
The reputed third Sessions/Kisylak meeting was first reported by CNN in May. Then, last week, former FBI director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he’d assumed Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia investigation based on secret information — which Comey would only disclose in a private, closed-door session. But once that session was over, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) all but blabbed about what it was: “There’s one meeting we don’t know about and people would like to know about it.”
For Democrats who were already upset with Sessions for failing to disclose the two Kisylak meetings, the possibility that he covered up three seems even more nefarious. For one thing, it’s simply more suspicious that Sessions could have overlooked or forgotten that many meetings. For another, it’s a lot harder for Sessions to claim that he only met Kisylak in his capacity as a senator if the first time they met was during a Donald Trump campaign event. And finally (and perhaps most importantly), it would mean Sessions was lying even after recusing himself from the investigation, by protesting he hadn’t met Kisylak before July.
Even before today’s testimony, some Senate Democrats — including Franken, who asked Sessions about Russia during the confirmation hearing to begin with — out-and-out accused the Attorney General of perjury. But the Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats, led by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), haven’t gone that far yet.
Warner and company have worked pretty well with Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and the committee’s Republicans in the Senate’s Russia investigation. Accusing a member of the Trump Cabinet (not to mention a former Republican Senator) of a federal crime could set committee Republicans on their heels — and could make future investigation trickier (especially because the Trump administration appears to be not responding to requests for information from congressional Democrats).
On the other hand, that’s not a reason for them to pull their punches. If Sessions perjured himself in a confirmation hearing, that’s an insult to the integrity of Congress — especially if he’s then turning around and accusing James Comey of committing perjury before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.
How recused is Sessions, really, from the Russia investigation?
Sessions is likely going to be asked a lot of questions about the relationship between Trump and Comey, and the events leading up to Comey’s firing. But it won’t just be because members of the committee are trying to fact-check Comey, or get the administration’s side of the story, after last week’s hearing. It’s because Sessions himself has some awkward questions to answer about his role in the decision to fire Comey — and his independence from the Russia investigation going forward.
When Comey was fired in May, the ostensible reason provided by the White House was that he’d been fired as the result of an investigation by Sessions’s deputy Rod Rosenstein, and Sessions’s own recommendation. Comey, the Rosenstein investigation argued, lost the trust of the agency and the American public because of his treatment of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as Secretary of State.
Then Donald Trump went on TV and told Lester Holt that “regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey” — and that “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’”
This raised two uncomfortable questions for Sessions. First of all, why had he participated in a post-facto charade to make Comey’s firing look more carefully deliberated than it was? Second — and more importantly — if Comey’s treatment of the Russia investigation was part of why he was fired, why on earth was Sessions, who was supposedly recused from the Russia investigation, involved in firing him?
Sessions is expected to refuse to answer any questions that deal with his conversations with the president — which would include any discussions about firing Comey — under the doctrine of executive privilege. But the questions aren’t just important for determining whether and how the Trump administration acted inappropriately (or even illegally) in pressuring Comey on Russia. Jeff Sessions is still head of the department conducting the Russia investigation — which means that if he did want to continue to exert pressure on it, it might be possible.
If President Trump decided to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, for example, it would likely have to be with Sessions’s consent — Sessions might, in fact, have to fire Mueller himself.
Firing Mueller would pose a serious threat to the independence of the Russia investigation. It would create a massive chilling effect. It would be literally Nixonian. Would Sessions be willing to go that far? Or would he see his recusal as a mandate for the special counsel to continue its investigation? That question might be impossible to answer without knowing what Sessions’s role really was in firing James Comey. But even if Sessions won’t answer them, it might not stop them from getting asked.
Trump’s reportedly mad at Sessions for precisely the opposite reasons senators are
Most politicians would look at a litany like this and conclude that Sessions would be a liability for the administration going forward — that he should try to bring everything out into the open, dispel the cloud of innuendo hanging over him, and try to help move attention back to the president’s agenda rather than the scandal that threatens to eat his presidency.
Donald Trump is not most politicians.
Trump didn’t think Sessions should recuse himself from the Russia investigation at all; he told reporters as much when the first Kisylak meetings came to light. When Sessions decided to recuse himself anyway, Trump was reportedly livid — getting so angry at Sessions that at one point the attorney general (unsuccessfully) offered to resign.
And in poor timing for Sessions, just as the question of his recusal has come back in the news — reminding Trump of something Sessions did the president didn’t like — the other big decision Sessions made that Trump didn’t like is back in the news as well.
Trump appears to blame Sessions’s Department of Justice for revising the first version of his travel ban, issued in January, to be more tailored and legally justifiable — or, in Trump’s words, “politically correct.” As the second version of the travel ban has also been put on hold by the courts — with rulings against the government in two different circuit courts in the last two weeks — Trump has started blaming the “watering down” of the travel ban for its legal struggles, and proclaiming that he should go back to the first one.
Of course, to most people not named Donald Trump, both of these decisions were moves that demonstrated a fealty to the rule of law and to checks and balances in the federal system (responding to pressure from Congress, in the case of the recusal, and to the courts in the case of the travel ban). In other words, the things that Congress is upset with Sessions about now are literally the opposite of the things Trump is upset with him about.
It all puts Sessions in a bit of an odd place, politically. On one hand, he seems like he’s on thin ice with the president — though it’s not clear how much of that is a genuine threat to his job, and how much is the bootlicking theatre Trump occasionally requires of all his inner circle — and with Congress. The combination would seem to make him an appealing target for whatever staff shakeup Trump actually carries out.
On the other hand, though, anything that Congress (which is to say, Congressional Democrats) would call for Sessions’s resignation over would probably be something Donald Trump would like.
If Sessions turns in a strong performance today — and Trump watches it — he’s likely to win serious brownie points with the boss. Furthermore, he’ll give Senate Republicans (who were until a few months ago his colleagues, and who have likely retained a certain loyalty toward him) a good basis for defending him against Democratic attacks going forward.
The toughest moments for the Trump administration have been when Republicans felt the need to join Democrats in condemning it. That happened with Sessions before he recused himself. He really can’t afford to have it happen now.
Sidelining Sessions could grind the Trump administration to a halt
What’s lost in all of this is that, in the three months since recusing himself from the Russia investigation, Jeff Sessions has been one of the more productive and effective Cabinet secretaries in the Trump administration.
He’s issued sweeping memos overhauling how prosecutors address drug crimes and immigration offenses. He’s put the brakes on ongoing work involving police oversight and the use of forensic evidence, while putting together his own task forces to study violent crime. And he’s been at the forefront of the administration’s efforts to defund “sanctuary cities” (though he hasn’t been able to get very far, again because he’s not willing to outright defy existing law or court rulings).
This is the Jeff Sessions who people familiar with Congress expected to see as Attorney General — someone moving aggressively to impose his own agenda, but with the institutional knowledge needed to actually do it. Most of the rest of the Trump administration lacks one, or both, of those qualities. If Trump’s law-and-order domestic agenda is successfully put in place, Sessions will be the reason.
But if Sessions gets pushed out entirely — either because Trump buckles to congressional pressure, or because Trump simply loses patience with him — that won’t happen. And the more that Sessions finds himself needing to defend his own behavior during the campaign, the less ability he has to do the job he allied with Trump during the campaign to get.
Donald Trump might not need Jeff Sessions. But Trumpism almost certainly does. The other true believers in the Trump administration are White House officials like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller who don’t have government experience and appear to overestimate what the president can actually do. The other longtime operators, like HHS Secretary Tom Price and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, are down-the-line conservatives who don’t think that immigration and crime are a bigger threat to America than tax rates.
The Trump administration isn’t as dysfunctional as it could be. But the Russia scandal, fanned by the administration’s incompetence, has ensnared one of its more competent members. And at this point, Sessions has a lot of people to please.