U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under extreme pressure, has finally recused himself from any formal investigation of Russian links to the presidential campaign. It is literally the least he could do at this point and may not prove enough.
The dilemma is one entirely of Sessions’ own making, starting with his decision to withhold from Congress during confirmation hearings that he had met in his office with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — the same Russian official who met privately with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who also failed to be candid about his meeting.
Sessions not only didn’t tell Congress, he apparently didn’t tell his boss. Trump on Thursday expressed the obligatory confidence in his attorney general, but also told reporters that he was “unaware” Sessions had met with Kislyak. It’s hard to imagine a meeting with the official of an adversarial nation that could be so inconsequential that one would feel no need to report it to the president for whom Russian relations have been a persistent question.
Sessions’ recusal, as necessary as it was, leaves unanswered a central question: Did he mislead Congress under oath? It was Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, during the confirmation hearing, who asked Sessions: “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 said — under penalty of perjury — that he was unaware of such activities, then volunteered that “I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians.” No equivocation, no qualifiers.
The September meeting came three days after President Barack Obama informed Russian President Vladimir Putin there would be no rollback of sanctions. Sessions was a senator on the Armed Services Committee, but more importantly to the Russians who were at the height of their efforts to influence the U.S. election, a top foreign-policy adviser to Donald Trump. Coincidence?
Since the news broke, Sessions has said first that he didn’t recall a meeting, then that nothing relating to the campaign was discussed, and finally that he did not consider it relevant to his hearings. Despite multiple opportunities to clarify his original answer, Sessions stayed silent for weeks, refusing recusal even though it was clear his involvement in the campaign compromised his neutrality. He waited, stubbornly, until he was forced to recuse himself.
These are not the aboveboard actions expected, indeed demanded, of the nation’s top law enforcement official.
“The standard of truth-telling for the attorney general of the United States has to be very high,” said Richard Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota and former chief White House ethics lawyer who astutely noted Thursday that right now “we have no idea what was said in that meeting, but the Russians do.”
That is a situation that must be remedied. Sen. Amy Klobuchar told an editorial writer that Sessions should reappear before the Judiciary Committee and explain himself. Between Flynn and Sessions, she said, “there is a pattern here. At the very least, this was misleading and may be much more.” Franken has asked that Sessions disclose his communications with Russian officials in detail by Friday. Both have said that if Sessions lied before Congress, he should resign.
Even with Session’s recusal, he remains under a cloud. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the FBI — which he oversees — the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Treasury Department have been looking into his contacts since before he was nominated.
Like Flynn, Sessions is rapidly becoming both a distraction and a liability. The Trump administration should not be expending precious political capital defending someone who withheld information from Congress and who has yet to be fully forthcoming. Sessions should consider whether he should resign. Republicans have no shortage of tough-minded, experienced attorneys who could perform ably as attorney general and, most importantly, without distraction.