The odds of a Special Counsel being appointed to investigate the alleged ties between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian intelligence services just improved dramatically, with the revelation that Attorney General Jeff Sessions apparently misled the Senate Judiciary Committee over his contacts with the Russian government during his confirmation hearing.
The Trump White House got less than twenty-four hours to bask in the warmth of a better-than-expected response to the president’s first address to a joint session of Congress before it was plunged back into the storm of controversy that has marked the opening weeks of the new administration. A report about the inconsistency in Sessions’ testimony was published in The Washington Post Wednesday night and quickly confirmed by other news outlets.
The Post reported that Sessions met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak last year, despite having plainly told the Senate Judiciary Committee otherwise. Asked about the swirling allegations that Trump campaign officials had been in frequent contact with Russian intelligence officers Sessions said, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
The Justice Department confirmed that the two meetings -- one at an event during the Republican National Convention in July, and the other a private meeting in Sessions’ office in September -- did happen. However, they insisted that not only had nothing improper taken place but that Sessions had not actually misled Congress because he was answering the question about his activities as a member of Trump’s presidential campaign.
“There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” said Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores. Sessions met Kislyak in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she explained.
For his part, Sessions said in a statement, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
On its face, there is nothing improper about a sitting senator meeting with an ambassador from Russia or any other country. In fact, as Flores pointed out in a statement, Sessions met with 25 separate ambassadors at various points in 2016.
However, his private meeting with Kislyak took place in September, after the US Intelligence Community publicly declared that they believed Russian intelligence was behind the hacking of email accounts belonging to the Democratic National Committee and to officials associated with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Intelligence officials would only later come to believe that the Russian interference had been intended to help Trump and harm Clinton.
At the time of their second meeting, Sessions had been very publicly associated with the Trump campaign for many months.
Reports of Sessions’ meeting with Kislyak greatly amplified the already-loud calls for the Attorney General to recuse himself from overseeing the ongoing investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
The Justice Department’s own rules require the Attorney General to recuse himself from cases in which a real or perceived conflict of interest might make the impartiality of an investigation appear compromised. Up to this point, Sessions had declined to do so, and there are no official means of compelling him to step away short of impeachment.
Democrats have also raised concerns about the impartiality of the inquiry because at the ground level, the investigation is being led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose director, James Comey, threw the presidential election into further turmoil by announcing an extension of an investigation into Clinton’s use of personal email while Secretary of State just days before voters went to the polls.
The most recent revelation are already driving calls for Sessions to appoint a Special Counsel to oversee the investigation.
Under the US Code, the Attorney General may appoint a special prosecutor “when he or she determines that criminal investigation of a person or matter is warranted and that investigation or prosecution of that person or matter by a United States Attorney's Office or litigating Division of the Department of Justice would present a conflict of interest for the Department or other extraordinary circumstances; and that under the circumstances, it would be in the public interest to appoint an outside Special Counsel to assume responsibility for the matter.”
Sessions, again, is under no clear legal obligation to hand off the investigation to a Special Counsel, but the drumbeat of calls for him to do so is only growing louder. Last week, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa said he believed such a move was already plainly necessary. On Wednesday night, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) suggested that one might be necessary as well.
The calls were, naturally, louder from the Democratic side.
Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who had questioned Sessions about Russia during his confirmation hearing, said in a statement, “It’s clearer than ever now that the attorney general cannot, in good faith, oversee an investigation at the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. of the Trump-Russia connection, and he must recuse himself immediately.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement “Jeff Sessions lied under oath during his confirmation hearing before the Senate.” Noting that he had been testifying under penalty of perjury, she called him unfit to serve as Attorney General and demanded his resignation.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said, “There is no longer any question that we need a truly independent commission to investigate this issue.”
The White House waved off the Democrats’ fury, characterizing it as politically motivated.
“This is the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats,” a White House official said in a statement. Calling Sessions’ meetings with Kislyak “entirely consistent” with his job as a senator, the statement added, “It is no surprise Senator Al Franken is pushing this story immediately following President Trump’s successful address to the nation.”
UPDATE: As of early Thursday morning, the chorus of lawmakers calling for Sessions to at least recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign's Russia ties had grown to include senior Republicans.
Jason Chafftez, the Utah Republican who runs the House Oversight Committee, called on Sessions to "clarify his testimony and recuse himself."
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said, "Jeff Sessions is a former colleague and a friend, but I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ Russia probe.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said it would be "easier" for all concerned if Sessions agreed to step back from the investigation. "I think the trust of the American people -- you recuse yourself in these situations, yes.”