Questions Raised by the Jeff Sessions Controversy

On January 10, 2017, US Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) answered questions from Congress to determine whether he should be confirmed as US Attorney General. During that confirmation hearing, US Senator Al Franken (D-MN) asked Sessions the following question:

“CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the President-Elect last week that included information that quote ‘Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.’ These documents also allegedly say quote ‘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’ response was given under oath:

“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’m unable to comment on it.”

As a result of that confirmation hearing, Jeff Sessions became the United States Attorney General. It was later determined that, while serving as the Trump Campaign’s top national security adviser, Sessions had actually met twice with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, considered by the US intelligence community to be a Russian spy and recruiter of spies, according to CNN. One of these meetings between Sessions and Kislyak was at the Republican National Convention where Trump was nominated as the Republican Party’s candidate for President.

The most benign, charitable interpretation of Sessions’ response to Franken was that he did not fully understand the question. A less kind interpretation is that he was intentionally lying, and there are multiple possibilities in between.

As Attorney General, Sessions should theoretically be in charge of the investigation into the Trump Campaign’s ties to Russia. Thankfully, Sessions was aware of the conflict that he had created with his nondisclosure and recused himself (removed himself) from being in charge of the investigation. Yet questions remain.

  1. Was this an honest misunderstanding of Senator Franken’s question, or did Senator Sessions knowingly lie under oath to Congress, which would be perjury – a felony?
  2. If this was truly an honest mistake, Sessions’ memory would surely have been jogged during the following weeks when President Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn made headlines as he resigned for not disclosing his own meetings with the same Russian diplomat. Why, during those subsequent weeks, did Sessions not correct the record? Why did he wait for Department of Justice officials to disclose their knowledge of the Sessions-Kislyak conversations?
  3. During his hearing to become US Attorney General (the US government’s chief law enforcement officer) if Sessions did knowingly lie to Congress, or knowingly continued to conceal the truth once he realized his omission, should he nonetheless continue on as Attorney General, or does his unethical and potentially criminal conduct warrant his resignation?
  4. What did Sessions and Kislyak discuss in their conversations? During the Republican National Convention, the Trump Campaign’s only contribution to the Republican Party Platform was a softening of US policy toward Russia over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Did the Kislyak-Sessions discussion at the Convention touch on that topic at all? In what way? If they discussed that, or the Trump Campaign, or policy ideas for a Trump Presidency, that is worrisome and unethical at best and requires intense scrutiny. If they discussed anything related to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails or Russia’s desire/efforts to sabotage her Campaign, that could potentially call into question the legitimacy of the entire Trump Presidency, because it could possibly show coordination between Russia’s actions and the Trump Campaign. It would also warrant even closer scrutiny of contacts that others in Trump’s orbit had with Russians, and could lead to criminal charges.
  5. What safeguards will the Department of Justice have in place to ensure that the Trump Administration is not tipped off about what evidence has been compiled in the investigation into connections between the Trump Campaign and Russia or between the Trump Administration and Russia?

Sessions is scheduled to return to the Senate to testify further on Monday 3/6 in order to clarify his earlier answers. Hopefully questions similar to those above will be asked to shed more light on the situation.

– rob rünt


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