Earlier this morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told NBC News that he would agree to recuse himself from the investigation into alleged contacts between the Donald Trump campaign and Russia — “whenever it’s appropriate.” Sessions also made clear that he believes a report from the Washington Post about two undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador that Sessions did not disclose to Congress doesn’t rise to that level of appropriateness. Sessions may find himself in the minority on that question, even among his allies:
— Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe) March 2, 2017
Not long after Sessions’ statement, House Oversight chair Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) called on Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation, and to “clarify” his earlier testimony:
— CBS News (@CBSNews) March 2, 2017
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) also said recusal would help give the American people confidence in the investigation:
— Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe) March 2, 2017
Both are correct on those points. That’s not to say that Sessions did anything that should require his resignation, but that his position in both the investigative hierarchy and in the investigation itself presents an irreconcilable conflict. Let’s go to the tape of that testimony, where Sen. Al Franken asked the specific question:
Note here that Franken asked specifically about Trump campaign “surrogates,” not campaign staffers, and Sessions’ response that some consider himself a “surrogate.” Franken also asked about contacts with the Russian “government” rather than intelligence operatives. “I have been called a surrogate a time or two in that campaign,” Sessions replied, “and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
At best, this answer is incomplete. Sessions and his defenders rightly point out that the question came in the context of the campaign itself, not in the context of Sessions’ job at the time, but at least one of the meetings certainly fell within Franken’s specific description. The first contact now acknowledged was so minor as to be rather silly: a few moments at a Heritage Foundation event at which Sessions was the featured speaker. The other took place in Sessions’ Senate office as part of the duties as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a meeting that looks more substantial and should have come to mind during Sessions’ testimony — if only to properly disclose it in response to a direct and fairly explicit question. Sessions can argue that the conversation, such as it was, had nothing to do with the campaign, and that’s why Sessions didn’t think of it when Franken asked the question.
However, that’s a point for investigators to flesh out, which is why Chaffetz and McCarthy are making the relatively common-sense argument for recusal. The issue is less in regard to a potential contempt-of-Congress charge over a clear misunderstanding, and more on point about potential Russian contacts with the Trump campaign. Having been a surrogate and having had those contacts — no matter how legitimate they were in the context of Session’s responsibilities in the Senate — it’s still a matter for investigators to check, and being in charge of the investigation at the same time makes for a pretty obvious potential for a conflict of interest.
In fact, contra Chaffetz, Sessions’ testimony isn’t the fundamental issue in play here. Even if Sessions had responded, “Well, Senator, I had met with Ambassador Kislyak in my office over business at the Armed Services Committee, but it had nothing to do with the campaign,” that meeting would still be a potential point for investigators looking into contacts between campaign officials and surrogates with Russians. Sessions would still have good reason to recuse himself from that particular investigation. Sessions’ testimony only makes the issue more acute.
That doesn’t mean Sessions needs to name a special prosecutor. He can assign oversight to a deputy AG, or to a US Attorney that would have the confidence of both the Department of Justice and Congress. US Attorney Dana Boente, who briefly ran the DoJ while Sessions went through the confirmation process, might be a reasonable choice. Recusals do not amount to an admission of wrongdoing; they are an acknowledgment that potential conflicts exist that could color the outcome of investigations, prosecutions, and/or adjudications. Sessions will understand this, and an eventual recognition of the insubstantial nature of the contact will be all the stronger for it.
Addendum: Democrats like Claire McCaskill are demanding Sessions resign from office, claiming that it’s impossible to forget meeting with a Russian ambassador. How easy can it be to forget a meeting like that? Well, just ask … Claire McCaskill:
Claire McCaskill says she’s had “no call or meeting w/Russian ambassador. Ever.” But she tweeted about two. It’s easy to forget. pic.twitter.com/kavd29WOg5
— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) March 2, 2017