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Jeff Sessions faces resignation calls following Russia revelations

Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have lied under oath about his communications with a Russian official during the 2016 election.
Image: Jeff Sessions
Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before...

Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice last year with Russia's ambassador to the United States, Justice Department officials said, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of President Trump's campaign and representatives of Moscow during Sessions's confirmation hearing to become attorney general.One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator's office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race.

The Wall Street Journal published a related report, noting that the U.S. counter-intelligence investigation has "examined" Sessions' contacts with Russian officials, though the outcome and status of the inquiry remain unclear.During his confirmation process, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked Sessions about possible evidence tying members of Trump's campaign team to the Russian government while Russia was illegally intervening in the U.S. election. "I'm not aware of any of those activities," the Alabama Republican responded, adding "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."We now know that Sessions did have communications with the Russians, his testimony, which was delivered under oath, notwithstanding.Around the same time, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Sessions in writing whether he's been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?" Sessions replied, "No."Sessions concedes that he did speak with the Russian ambassador twice during the 2016 campaign, but as the Post's report added, the Attorney General and his office are arguing that Sessions "did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers' questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak."The Justice Department added that Sessions talked to the Russian ambassador in his capacity as a then-member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.And with that, let's dig in:* Why would Sessions talk to an official with the Russian government?  The Washington Post talked to 20 senators who were on the committee in 2016 -- from both parties -- and not one of them had communicated with the Russian ambassador. [Update: Sen. Claire McCaskill's claims about never having met the Russian ambassador turned out to be inaccurate, but the broader point about 2016 meetings remains true.]Sessions, however, had two separate meetings. He says the communications were "superficial" and unimportant, but we have no idea if that's true. We also don't know why he'd take steps to conceal conversations that were anodyne.
It'd also be interesting to know if Sessions had other routine meetings with the Russian ambassador prior to 2016, or if this was unique to last year's election period.* Is Sessions' job in jeopardy? A wide variety of congressional Democrats have called for Sessions' resignation given the contradictions between his sworn testimony and reality. So far, however, no Republicans have joined that chorus.* Is Sessions facing legal jeopardy? Richard Painter‏, the chief ethics lawyer in the Bush/Cheney administration, said, in reference to the comments Sessions made under oath, "Misleading the Senate in sworn testimony about one's own contacts with the Russians is a good way to go to jail."* Is there anything from Sessions' past that could make things worse for him? As a matter of fact, yes. During the Bill Clinton impeachment affair 20 years ago, Sessions characterized lying under oath as a high crime, worthy of removal from office. Public officials can't "play games with the law and the truth," he said in 1999.* Should Sessions, in his capacity as Attorney General, officially separate himself from a possible role in the investigation into the Russia scandal? Obviously, yes, as even some Republicans have acknowledged. Given his role as a leading Trump ally, it was already incumbent on Sessions to recuse himself from the process, but now that we know about his contacts with a Russian official during the campaign, the debate is effectively over.I'm reminded of a recent editorial from the New York Times, published before the most recent revelations.

Mr. Sessions must appoint a special prosecutor, and he knows why. As an article published on Fox News's website days before the election said, "The appropriate response when the subject matter is public and it arises in a highly charged political atmosphere is for the attorney general to appoint a special counsel of great public stature and indisputable independence to assure the public the matter will be handled without partisanship."The article, which called for an investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server and pay-to-play allegations surrounding the Clinton Foundation, argued that Loretta Lynch, then the attorney general, could not serve as a neutral arbiter, given her impromptu meeting with Bill Clinton on her airplane earlier in the year. One of the article's co-authors was Jeff Sessions.

This morning, Sessions said he's willing to recuse himself from the Russia investigation if it's "appropriate."