In yesterday’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence (sic) Committee, U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirmed that if he was a party to any nefarious acts, he either doesn’t remember or won’t say. The amnesia defense, immortalized by Art Buchwald in his book I Think I Don’t Remember, was perfected by President Ronald Reagan and his own attorney general, Edwin Meese, when they were ensnared in the Iran/Contra scandal. But in its substance, Sessions’s refusal to discuss his conversations with Trump goes back to Watergate, President Richard Nixon, and so-called executive privilege.
How damning and/or effective was Sessions’s own contribution to this legacy of evasive maneuvering? On first glance, the results were decidedly mixed. The chief charges against Sessions are as follows:
- He met with Russians twice and failed to acknowledge the meetings, once under oath in Senate testimony. He is said to have met a third time and still fails to admit—er, excuse me, “recall”—doing so;
- He provided a written justification for firing FBI Director Comey that differed from Trump’s actual, admitted motive;
- He permitted a private meeting between the president and the FBI director to take place.
- Sessions recused himself from all matters pertaining to the campaign in the Russia probe, yet he participated in the firing of Comey—who was investigating matters pertaining to the campaign in the Russia probe.
Let us review this litany in sequence:
- One so-called meeting was an instance of Sessions chatting up the Russian ambassador at a public forum at the Republican Convention. The same is true of the infamous third meeting at the Mayflower Hotel, which took place in the middle of a gaggle after a speech by Trump. There is a picture purporting to depict this conversation; the picture shows Sessions talking to somebody with his back to the camera. (Without being asked or otherwise prompted, Sessions has repeatedly insisted in his testimony that this encounter was a contentious one—a not-so-subtle bid to defang the obvious follow-up query about whether and how Trump’s chief ideological encounter on the campaign might have gone about reassuring the anxious Russian diplomat that the Obama sanctions instituted to punish Russian election hacking would no longer be in force in the coming Trump administration.)
As with most questions put to him, Sessions fell back on a series of half-hearted “I don’t remember” assertions rather than an emphatic denial of the suggestion that quid pro quos were being gently laid in place. At other times Sessions suggests the possibility of an “encounter.” Even so, neither of these seem to be the stuff of high conspiracy, as the reliably execrable Republican Senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton, pointed out. The only real private meeting with a Russian official took place in Sessions’s office. Nobody has offered any evidence as to what might have been discussed there.
- The timeline of the Comey firing clearly shows that Sessions’s letter to Trump trashing Comey was intended to provide an ex post facto justification. The reason Sessions confected for the occasion is laughable on its face: Comey is criticized for bungling his handling of the Hillary Clinton non-investigation. At the time, of course, Trump and his bloodthirsty followers were calling for Hillary’s head. So Sessions is guilty, at a minimum, of perpetrating high political bullshit to clumsily deflect suspicion away from Trump. The legal issue here is whether Trump could fire the FBI director for investigating an affair in which he could have been involved. Some call this obstruction of justice, others not necessarily in the Trump camp do not. If it isn’t, then Sessions has committed no crime.
- Trump ended a group meeting by asking Comey to stay on. The propriety of the meeting, in which Trump asks Comey to knock off the investigation of Michael Flynn and Russian election interference, is dubious. But Sessions is not in that meeting. Nobody has suggested that he knew what would be discussed. The president is allowed to have a conversation with the director of the FBI.
Any guilt on Sessions’s part depends on conversations he had with the president. He repeatedly refused to answer questions about them, under the highly debatable argument that by doing so he would preclude the president’s prerogative to subsequently declare such conversations shielded by “executive privilege.” He included some babble about a “constitutional” right the president has to have secret conversations. Specific references here would have been helpful. Until they materialize, the legal basis for refusing to answer questions is rather emphatically undemonstrated.
- Perhaps the least logical stonewalling claim that Sessions floated was that recommending the dismissal of Comey did not contradict his recusal from Russia/campaign matters. His excuse is that he fired Comey for a completely different reason—Comey’s handling of the Clinton email inquiry. This doesn’t pass the giggle test. But is it illegal?
Without question, Jeff Sessions writes the book on unethical behavior, second only to the master in the White House. But the illegality of it all looks thin, given available information. In the end it will depend on politics, as indeed does impeachment.
One regrettable angle of all this is that Sessions might be among the very worst Trump cabinet choices, for reasons having nothing to do with Russia, and everything to do with fortifying the pillars of institutional racism regarding voting rights, immigration restrictions, and police misconduct. Without question, this Russia/Flynn focus is understandable, but it unavoidably drains attention from these other Sessions-authored abuses.
Still, there is one striking dog that didn’t bark here. Nobody in the hearing—neither witness nor senator—questioned the premise that the Russian state interfered in the U.S. presidential election. This makes all the more amazing Sessions’s admission in testimony that he had yet to take in any briefings or classified information on this momentous conclusion. If there is any more damning admission from the chief law enforcement officer in the nation, I don’t know what it could be.