For the second time in a month, evasiveness over meetings with Russia's ambassador to Washington, D.C., has complicated life for the Trump administration.
Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions' failure to disclose his meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak closely paralleled a similar lapse by former national security advisor Michael Flynn.
In both cases, a major question remains: Since the meetings, themselves, appear not to have been illegal or inappropriate, why dissemble about them?
Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.
EVASION TAKES A TOLL
This week started out well for President Trump. His address to a joint session of Congress, notably less divisive in tone than his last two major speeches, got warm reviews, reassured nervous Republican members of Congress and, to the relief of White House aides, left a sometimes fretful president in a good mood. [Here's an annotated transcript, and Mark Barabak's look at how red and blue America heard very different speeches.]
The speech left a lot of important questions unanswered, as Cathy Decker wrote, but nonetheless, White House officials considered it a hit. Hoping to ride a wave of good publicity — something they've not had much of — White House officials postponed plans for a Wednesday release of the revised version of the president's temporary ban on travel from seven mostly Muslim countries. The day, they hoped, would be dominated by reprises of Trump's speech.
That hope lasted a few hours.
Wednesday evening, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal both reported that Sessions had met at least twice with Kislyak, contradicting his statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing that "I did not have communications with the Russians." [Want to know more about Kislyak? Check out Laura King's profile of the Russian ambassador.]
With leading Democrats accusing Sessions of lying under oath and nervous Republicans offering tentative defenses, the story quickly dominated Washington. [Need a refresher on the basic facts of the case? Noah Bierman wrote this helpful Q and A. And Sarah Wire wrote this about why Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) has gone further than other Republicans in calling for an independent investigation.]
By Thursday afternoon, Sessions had announced his decision to step aside from any further involvement in the investigation of Russian interference in last year's presidential election.
In one sense, Sessions and the administration escaped the storm with little damage — Justice Department rules made clear that even without the Kislyak meetings, the attorney general sooner or later was going to have to recuse himself from the case.
Sessions himself summed up the reason succinctly: "I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in," he said.
The recusal decision fended off much worse outcomes for the administration — blunting calls for an independent counsel to lead the investigation or for Sessions' resignation. Losing him would have been a huge blow.
Still, the incident clearly did damage. Beyond blotting out the president's speech, it added more impetus to Democratic calls for a free-ranging congressional investigation into what Russia did in the election and whether any Trump associates colluded with Moscow.
[Among the Trump associates whose name keeps popping up is a Russian-born businessman named Felix Sater with a complex past. Joe Tanfani and David Cloud took a close look at a man who has hovered near Trump for years and whose connections have intrigued investigators.]
Sessions' statements also damaged his reputation.
All of which raises the question: Why didn't Sessions simply disclose the meetings with Kislyak in the first place?
The attorney general's explanation on Thursday — that he was "taken aback" by the question he was asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and responded too hastily — left a lot unanswered.
To start, Franken's question, about what Sessions would do if he discovered that any of Trump's associates had been communicating with the Russians during the campaign, hardly came out of left field. By the time of Sessions' confirmation hearing, on Jan. 10, the issue of Russian involvement in the campaign had been a matter of heated public debate for at least two months.
The hearing came less than two weeks after President Obama had expelled 35 Russian diplomats and imposed other sanctions to punish Russia for its actions during the election.
And even if Sessions was caught off guard by the question, he had two opportunities to correct the misleading impression he provided the Judiciary committee: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sent Sessions written follow-up questions, and witnesses in confirmation hearings always have a period of time to correct the official record after a hearing. That's done precisely in order to take care of situations in which a momentary lapse causes a witness to misstate an important fact.
Sessions could have told the committee what his spokesperson, Sarah Flores, said on Wednesday night — that as a senator, he had met with two dozen ambassadors during 2016, and Kislyak was one of them. That would have generated some headlines, of course, but they would have been far milder than what happened this week.
Sessions' failure to straightforwardly account for his meetings is where his conduct resembles Flynn's. The former national security advisor met with Kislyak on Dec. 29, the day the Obama sanctions were announced. When the fact of that meeting became public in a Washington Post column on Jan. 12, Flynn misled his colleagues about what he discussed. He stuck to his false story for weeks until news reports left Trump little choice but to fire him.
In both cases, the known facts leave a key question unanswered: If nothing nefarious happened in the meetings — and no evidence indicates otherwise — why dissemble?
Neither Sessions nor Flynn, nor the White House, has provided a convincing explanation of their actions, so we're left to speculate. Whatever the answer — whether hubris, inattention to detail, lack of experienced staff or a desire to skirt the truth when possible — senior Trump administration have now made questions about their judgment and truthfulness relevant twice in a month. It's a risky pattern.
A KEY ADVISOR AND A WEB OF FORMER AIDES
As Mike Memoli and Brian Bennett reported, Sessions is more than just the administration's chief legal officer, he's one of Trump's closest and most influential advisors on a wide range of policies. To see why Sessions has such influence, check out this visualization of how a network of his former aides is spread across key parts of the administration.
His influence is especially strong on immigration, the issue on which Sessions had the most impact in his final years in the Senate. Trump's key aide, domestic policy advisor Stephen Miller, came from Sessions' staff.
As Bennett wrote, Miller and Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, believe that current high levels of immigration are dangerous for the U.S. The ultimate goal of the immigration policies they have pushed is to reverse long-standing trends that have made the U.S. less white and more ethnically diverse.
Meantime, Trump, who sees himself as a deal maker, has been suggesting he might be angling for a deal on immigration. Bennett sifted through the president's recent statements to look at the possibilities.
And as we await the administration's new version of its travel ban, David Savage examined what's likely to be the next major legal battleground over the administration's immigration policies: Trump's effort to put hundreds of thousands of deportation proceedings on a fast track.
The debate over how — or whether — to repeal Obama's signature healthcare law is moving toward a potentially decisive state. House Republicans plan to unveil their proposal next week.
As Noam Levey wrote, the plans include some potential political time bombs for the GOP. That realization has started to spread on Capitol Hill, making the Republican majority increasingly nervous about the whole idea.
Congressional Republicans are anxiously looking to the White House to publicly provide them both leadership and a heat shield on the issue. So far, they're not seeing much, which has increased their anxiety level, Lisa Mascaro reported.
As the debate heats up, Levey has been writing a series of pieces explaining key issues. This week's installment: What might happen to benefits for millions of Americans on Medicaid?
DISMANTLING ENVIRONMENTAL RULES
The new EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, is moving quickly to start dismantling key environmental policies. At the top of the list, Evan Halper wrote, is a rule designed to protect streams and wetlands.
Farm groups, developers and other business interests have long argued the rule would give Washington too much power over local land-use decisions. But as Halper noted, dismantling the rule could take years.
Halper also looked at a special election coming up in Georgia that could be an important barometer of Trump's standing with voters. The election will fill the vacancy left in Congress because of Tom Price's appointment to be secretary of Health and Human Services. Democrats believe they have a shot in Price's old district, a suburban area that has long been Republican, but which has soured on Trump.
ALL THE PRESIDENT'S TWEETS
Twitter has long been Trump's favored means of pushing his message. We're compiling all of Trump's tweets. It's a great resource. Take a look.
That wraps up this week. My colleague Sarah Wire will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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