Opinion

Did Sessions lie, or err? The difference matters, and needs to be investigated

Did Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions commit perjury when he denied in his Senate confirmation hearing that he had been in touch with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential election? That’s not a conclusion the public — let alone a court or Senate committee — can draw from recent reports that Sessions had two undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador. But there are certainly enough questions to warrant an investigation.

As with everything in Washington, the partisan overlay here is thick, and we need to cut through it. Sessions’ appointment faced stiff opposition, and some Democrats are now calling for him to resign, arguing — perhaps opportunistically in what my colleague Michael McGough suggests could be an overplay that will haunt them — that his failure to come clean about the contacts disqualifies him from the job. That demand is premature, though it might ripen if there are further revelations and conflicts between his statements and the verifiable record.

Others argue that Sessions must at a minimum recuse himself from Justice Department investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, a call that even some Republicans have joined — as has the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board. That is a prudent demand, and Sessions’ promise to recuse himself “whenever it’s appropriate” is insufficient. He should have taken that step before, and must take it now. [Minutes after this was posted, Sessions announced he had recused himself from “matters” involving the Trump campaign.]

If he doesn’t, the nation would have reasonable cause to doubt the independence of an investigation, which would further damage the government’s credibility in the eyes of people already suspicious of it. But Congress could also make the recusal moot by appointing an independent commission, or a special prosecutor, something I urged two weeks ago.

Why is it such a big deal that Sessions failed to disclose his conversations with the Russian ambassador? Sessions described his campaign role as an occasional surrogate for candidate Trump. In reality, he was more than that. He headed up candidate Trump’s national security advisory team, and a shrewd diplomat wouldn’t be out of line to think that currying contacts with Sessions in that role might be helpful if Sessions — as was already being being talked about — wound up with a top position in a Trump administration. Session’s argument that he spoke with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in his capacity as a U.S. senator deserves skepticism.

The first conversation between Sessions and Kislyak occurred at a Republican National Convention-related event, after which Sessions declined a subsequent lunch meeting meeting because of the optics. That the meeting took place in an environment framed by the election — the nominating convention — makes it hard to believe they didn’t discuss the election, even if in innocuous terms. And Sessions clearly was aware of the possible problem of meeting with Kislyak, since he turned down the subsequent lunch invitation. Yet he failed to include in his testimony the meeting that he did have.

The second meeting came in Sessions’ office after reports had already surfaced about Russian ties to the hack of Democratic emails, and speculation swirled about possible Russian meddling in the election. Sessions is too smart and savvy a politician to forget about such a tete-a-tete, or not think such a meeting ought to be mentioned within the context of the question that Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken asked him about “what will you do” as attorney general if evidence surfaced “that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign.” Sessions’ response was unequivocal, even though not directly responsive to the question:  “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

Further, Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy submitted written questions to Sessions, which included: “Several of the president-elect’s nominees or senior advisors 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?” Leahy wrote. Sessions was succinct: “No.”

Yet Sessions was in contact. Sessions is no inexperienced rube — he has been on the interrogators’ side of Senate committee hearings, and knows what to expect. A prudent nominee with such a background would scour appointment books and other records to be prepared for the kind of grilling Sessions himself has conducted. It stretches credulity to think that someone with his experience wouldn’t realize that even an innocent meeting with the Russian ambassador merited disclosure.

Note that this controversy wouldn’t even exist had Sessions told the committee: “I met with the Russian ambassador twice, as I have with ambassadors of other nations, but we discussed nothing of significance regarding the presidential campaign.” Instead, he forcefully said he had no such contacts.

Was this simply an error, an oversight by Sessions and his staff as he prepared for the hearings? Or did Sessions lie to avoid having to answer more probing questions about the meetings? Did he overstep, as did former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who before taking office counseled Russia to not overreact to Obama’s ejection of Russian diplomats over the hacking scandal, then lied about the conversation to Vice President Mike Pence?

These are serious questions that need answers the public can trust. If our institutions of justice are to work, the nation has to have faith that its top law-enforcement official takes seriously an oath to be truthful. Trump won election by exploiting a broad distrust for the federal government. His move here should be to force openness and accountability, rather than countenance what would be rightly seen as just another politician obstructing the truth.

scott.martelle@LATimes.com

Twitter: @smartelle


UPDATES:

1:17 p.m.: This post was updated to include Sessions’ announcement that he would recuse himself from matters involving the Trump presidential campaign. 

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