The revelation that Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions misled the Senate Judiciary Committee about his contacts with Russian officials during Donald Trump's presidential campaign has increased calls for him to recuse himself from any investigation of ties between the campaign and Russia. (The Los Angeles Times called for Sessions to step aside from that matter in a Feb. 21 editorial.)
Perjury, of course, is a difficult charge to make. Not every misstatement or omission in sworn testimony qualifies, and Sessions is already arguing that he didn't deliberately mislead members of the judiciary committee. But as a political matter, the fact that he didn't own up to meetings with Russia's ambassador adds fuel to what has become an overriding issue for many Democratic opponents of President Trump: the Russia connection.
The Washington Post report about Sessions' meetings with the Russian ambassador came the same day the New York Times reported that in the final days of the Obama administration, officials "scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election — and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians — across the government." The salvage operation was partly motivated, the story said, "by the suspicion among many in the Obama White House that the Trump campaign might have colluded with Russia on election email hacks — a suspicion that American officials say has not been confirmed."
This is the Holy Grail — or smoking gun, to switch clichés — of some Democrats' imaginings. Trump has been criticized for mocking concerns about Russian interference in last year's election as an attempt by Democrats to delegitimize his presidency. But let's face it. If it were established that his campaign colluded with efforts by Russian intelligence to hack into Democratic email accounts and feed the contents to WikiLeaks for dissemination, that would delegitimize his victory big-league — and it might implicate campaign aides who were involved in criminal conduct. Watergate comparisons would be in order.
Of course, as the New York Times conceded in its most recent story, such collusion "has not been confirmed."
That story is also interesting for the way it expands on a claim in a Feb. 14 story that "members of Donald J. Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election." Wednesday's story explained: "The label 'intelligence official' is not always cleanly applied in Russia, where ex-spies, oligarchs and government officials often report back to the intelligence services and elsewhere in the Kremlin." Hmm.
There is a case to be made for investigating Russian meddling in the election that has nothing to do with casting doubt on the legitimacy of Trump's election.
But clearly some Democrats hope it can be shown that the Trump campaign had guilty knowledge of, and maybe even abetted, attempts by Russian intelligence to hack Democratic email accounts and use WikiLeaks to pollute the campaign with the contents. Such a revelation would mean more than a few indictments. It could trigger resignation or impeachment of a man many Democrats consider "not my president."
But suppose that, after a thoroughly credible investigation, the proof just isn't there. Will Democrats regret having invested so much emotional energy and political capital in a single conspiracy theory?
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