By John Cassidy
With President Trump being uncharacteristically quiet on Thursday 2nd March 2017 morning amid a new batch of reports about his associates’ ties to Russia, it was left to the Kremlin to blast the “fake news” media. “The only piece of advice that I can give is that, in a situation like this, avoid reacting to all such anonymous, baseless fake news stories and rely only on official statements by genuine officials,” Dmitri Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, said, in Moscow.
Peskov appears to have been referring to a CNN report that Sergey Kislyak, the portly Russian Ambassador to Washington, is “considered by US intelligence to be one of Russia’s top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington.” Whether Kislyak is a spook or merely a hardworking diplomatic emissary, he has certainly been working the Trump beat diligently. Earlier this month, Michael Flynn was forced to resign as Trump’s national-security adviser after it emerged that he had lied to Vice-President Mike Pence about conversations he’d had with Kislyak. Now senior Democrats are calling on Jeff Sessions, the new Attorney General, to follow Flynn out the door, in the wake of the revelation that he misled Congress about his own contacts with Kislyak.
During his Senate confirmation hearing, Sessions told Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat, “I didn’t have communications with the Russians.” But, on Wednesday night, the Washington Post reported that Sessions met with Kislyak twice during last year’s Presidential campaign, when he was acting as one of Trump’s primary political surrogates, while still serving in the Senate.
Despite issuing a carefully worded statement on Wednesday nightin which he said that he had “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign” and that he had “no idea what this allegation is about”Sessions on Thursday morning appeared to indicate a willingness to step aside from the F.B.I. investigation into Russia’s interference in the campaign. “I have said whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself,” he told NBC News. “There’s no doubt about that.”
On Thursday afternoon, during a press conference at the Justice Department, Sessions confirmed that he would step aside from “matters that deal with the Trump campaign,” a decision he said he had reached after consulting with the department’s ethics specialists. Given the uproar that the Post story caused, recusing himself is about the least Sessions could do. By Thursday morning, a number of conservative members of his own party, including Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader, and Jason Chaffetz, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, had already called on him to take that step.
Meanwhile, top Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, are demanding that Sessions either resign or be fired. “We are far past recusal,” Pelosi said on Twitter. “Jeff Sessions lied under oath. Anything less than resignation or removal from office is unacceptable.” Even Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator who is widely regarded as the Democrat friendliest to Trump, echoed the Party leaders. If Sessions lied about his contacts with Kislyak, he should resign, Manchin said. The Post reported that Sessions spoke with Kislyak once in July, at a Heritage Foundation event, and once in September, in a private meeting in Sessions’s office. Sessions’s position is that he didn’t lie in his confirmation-hearing testimony because, for one thing, when he met with Kislyak in September, he was acting in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not as a Trump surrogate.
“There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman, told the Post. Given Sessions’s blanket statement that he didn’t have any communications with the Russians, this argument seems like a stretch. But, even if we go along with it, why didn’t Sessions disclose his meeting with Kislyak and explain to Franken that it had nothing to do with Presidential politics? At his press conference, the Attorney General acknowledged that he should have done this, saying he met with the Russian Ambassador with two of his senior staffers, and they mainly discussed foreign policy, including the situation in Ukraine. At one point, he said, the conversation “got to be a little testy.” Whatever happens to Sessions, attention will inevitably focus on Trump. Two days after his well-received address to a joint session of Congress, the President finds himself in another fine Russian mess.
Sessions isn’t merely a White House aide or a Presidential adviser; during the campaign, he was arguably Trump’s most important political backer, and now he’s the top law-enforcement officer in the country. If Caesar’s wife had to be above suspicion, surely the same thing applies to the Attorney General.
Had the revelations about Sessions’s meetings with Kislyak come as a one-off thing, the White House could perhaps have tried to shrug them off. But they are part of a much bigger story, which is still evolving.
The number of Trump associates who have been accused of having undisclosed contact with Russian agents, or who have reportedly been investigated by the F.B.I., now stands at six: Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager; Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer; Roger Stone, a longtime political associate; Carter Page, an oil-industry consultant who acted as one of his foreign-policy advisers; Flynn; and now Sessions. Raising the pressure on the Attorney General, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that U.S. counterintelligence officials have been looking into any contacts Sessions may have had with Russian officials during the spring and summer of last year.
Citing anonymous sources, the Journal story said that these inquiries were “part of a wide-ranging U.S. counterintelligence investigation into possible communications between members of Mr. Trump’s campaign team and Russian operatives.” The outcome of the inquiry wasn’t clear, the Journal said. If it is still proceeding, the story noted, it means that F.B.I. agents are in the remarkable and unenviable position of having to investigate their boss. (The F.B.I. is part of the Justice Department.) According to the Journal, “The FBI’s role in the investigation into Mr. Sessions’ conversations left the agency ‘wringing its hands’ about how to proceed, said one person familiar with the matter.”
All this was remarkable enough, but the Trump/Kremlin news didn’t stop there. In a front-page piece, the Times reported that Obama Administration officials, during their final days in office, had sought to preserve evidence relating to Russia’s efforts to interfere with the election, including electronic intercepts and tip-offs from friendly foreign countries. The story also provided new details about the allegations of broader ties between Moscow and the Trump campaign. “American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officialsand others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putinand associates of President-elect Trump,” the Times said. “Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.” For the Trump White House, the stories in the Post, the Journal, and the Times were a triple whammy. On Thursday afternoon, before Sessions spoke with the media, Trump said that he had “total” confidence in the Attorney General. Still, the Russia imbroglio is perhaps the only issue on which it is conceivable that large numbers of Republicans in Congress might break with the President.
Amid the lovefest between Trump and congressional Republicans on Tuesday night, a proper public investigation seemed impossible to imagine. But, now, who knows? The F.B.I. and other counterintelligence agencies are still on the case. And, whatever happens to Sessions, it looks like he won’t be in a position to interfere.
‘Courtesy The New Yorker’.