Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from investigations into presidential campaigns after prominent Democrats called for his resignation largely because of a false report in the Washington Post. The controversy ensued after the paper published an article on Wednesday that then-Senator Sessions had held two meeting with Russia’s ambassador to the United States in 2016. He did not mention these during testimony in his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.
As a result, prominent Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), have called for Sessions’ resignation. T
he Washington Post caused confusion over Sessions’ contacts with Russians in its article that was published on Wednesday by editing the transcript of the actual exchange between Sessions and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn) of the Judiciary Committee. It was there that the essential context of the exchange was obscured.
As published in the Washington Post, the article reported:
“At his Jan. 10 Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn) what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign. ‘I'm not aware of any of those activities,’ he responded. He added: ‘I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.’"
However, the relevant transcript tells a broader story in which the context reveals that the two senators were talking specifically about contacts between Russian officials and the Trump organization. The transcript reads thus:
Franken: “CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documentation to the president-elect last week, that included information that 'Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.' These documents also allegedly say 'there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.' Again, I'm telling you this as it's coming out, so you know. But if it's true, it's obviously extremely serious, and 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: “Senator Franken, 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, and I am unable to comment on it." In his announcement of his recusal from investigations of presidential campaigns, Sessions declared that he had told the Judiciary Committee that he would consult with ethics officials at the Department of Justice should his impartiality be questioned. If was after having met with senior DOJ officials that he decided to recuse himself from investigations into campaigns for President of the United States. He did not, however, directly address in his statement the issue of alleged contacts with Russians.
In his January 10 testimony and his press conference on Thursday, Sessions explained that at the time he met with Russia’s ambassador to the US on one occasion, and with Russian representatives subsequently, he was not part of the Trump campaign. In a press conference Sessions held today, he said, “I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign. And the idea that I was part of a quote, ‘continuing exchange of information’ during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government is totally false.”
Sessions admitted that he did have two meetings with Russian officials in 2016, but said he had no discussions with them about the Trump campaign. “In my reply to the question — my reply to the question of Senator Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time. I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That is not my intent. That is not correct.”
Furthermore, Sessions said in his statement, “In retrospect, I should've slowed down and said I did meet with one Russian official a couple times — that would be the ambassador.” In his press conference, and also in a written statement that was released by the Department of Justice, Sessions said he would provide an explanation of his testimony for the record to the Judiciary Committee. Sessions’ ‘puzzling news conference’ In an article in the Washington Post entitled "Jeff Sessions puzzling press conference," Aaron Blake wrote that Sessions' decision to recuse himself was "clearly designed to stanch the bleeding." But in doing so, Blake wrote, "Sessions didn't do himself too many favors."
Blake noted that in Sessions' initial statement, Sessions maintained his innocence and said that his response to Franken at the confirmation hearing was "honest and correct as I understood it at the time.” Blake also noted that Sessions said that he will update the record, while conceding at the press conference, “In retrospect, I should've slowed down and said I did meet with one Russian official a couple times — that would be the ambassador.”
Unsatisfied with Sessions' explanations, Blake wrote, "So he didn't do anything wrong, but he should've done something else and will fix it. And also, the ‘as I understood it at the time’ is pretty weasel-wordy. It sounds as though Sessions is saying he misunderstood the question, which is perhaps the best explanation he can offer, given how broad and unprompted his denial was." Blake suggested that by appearing to have misunderstood Franken's line of questioning, Sessions is seeking to allay any resulting accusations of perjury.
Blake, finally, was not satisfied with Sessions' recusal either: "And finally, the fact that Sessions opted to recuse himself is strange, especially given that White House press secretary Sean Spicer said earlier in the day that there was nothing to recuse himself for.
Today Franken wrote on Twitter, “Americans deserve an attorney general who will be honest with them.”
Americans deserve an attorney general who will be honest with them. https://t.co/HawYI70sEA— Al Franken (@alfranken) March 2, 2017
On Facebook, Franken said today that Sessions’ answers were “misleading,” even though he had not said so before today. “During his confirmation hearing,” wrote Franken, “I asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions a question about contacts the Trump team may have had with the Russian government during the course of his campaign. He replied that he was not aware of any such activities and he also said that he did not have communications with Russian officials. Turns out that, at best, his answer was misleading. The Washington Post reported that Attorney General Sessions met with the Russian ambassador twice during the 2016 campaign.”