Smoke From the White House

What Jeff Sessions’ recusal means for the Trump administration’s growing Russia problem.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks at the Justice Department’s 2017 Black History Month observation at the Department of Justice on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

In his first few weeks as attorney general, Jeff Sessions has made clear that he intends to roll back the work of the Obama administration in liberalizing drug laws, reducing mass incarceration, and challenging rogue police departments. On Monday, Sessions said he hasn’t read the Obama-era Department of Justice reports on police abuses in Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri. And on Tuesday, in his first speech as attorney general, he announced his plan to end federal monitoring of troubled police departments. “We need, so far as we can, in my view, [to] help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness,” said Sessions, suggesting that it harms police to hold them accountable for civil and human rights abuses.

This was predictable. Sessions’ career is defined by his hostility to civil rights advocacy and criminal justice reform. From the moment of his nomination, it was clear he would pursue a draconian agenda of reaction. That this wasn’t enough to deter his nomination is the advantage of Republican partisan control and the general deference given to presidential nominees.

Which is to say Sessions was lucky. Lucky to have signed up with the Trump campaign, lucky to have ridden Donald Trump’s improbable victory to a high-ranking spot in the administration. But his luck may be running out.

Since the election, allegations of Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and serious questions about Trump’s ties to the Russian government have led to emphatic denials from the Trump campaign of any contact with Russian officials. But on two occasions in 2016, according to a recent report from the Washington Post, then–Alabama Sen. Jeff Session met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, contradicting prior claims.

On its face, this is reminiscent of the scandal that ended retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s short-lived career in Trump’s White House as national security adviser. Flynn had also denied contact with the Russian ambassador, until revelations arose that he had spoken with Kislyak about U.S. sanctions and lied about that conversation with Vice President Michael Pence (Flynn’s contact came after the election). Sessions, by contrast, has something of an excuse: He was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose members meet regularly with official representatives from foreign governments. But of the 26 members on the committee, Sessions was the only one who met with the Russian ambassador in 2016.

What makes this worse—what makes it a potential crisis for the Trump administration—is that Sessions may have lied about these meetings under oath, while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing. The exchange was with Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked Sessions what he would do, as attorney general, if there was any evidence that “anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government.” Sessions didn’t answer the question; what he did say was this:

Sen. 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 didn’t have—did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.

When, in a questionnaire, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Sessions whether he had “been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day,” the now–attorney general answered with a simple “No.”

If you’re feeling generous, you could read the second answer as merely misleading, since he answers “no” in the context of speaking with the Russian government about the election. But his first denial is more categorical, which makes his explanation—“I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaigns,” said Sessions on Thursday—less tenable. The issue isn’t whether he spoke with Russian officials about the campaign; it’s whether he spoke with them, period. And the clear conclusion from a plain reading of his exchange with Sen. Franken is that Sessions was not telling the truth.

All of this is why, in the wake of the revelation, lawmakers in both parties spent the earlier part of the day calling on Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation of Russian hacking and the Trump campaign. On Twitter, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Sessions “should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.” Likewise, said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman in a statement, “I think it would best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the D.O.J. Russia probe.”

Democrats, smelling blood, have made much greater demands. “After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the Attorney General must resign,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a statement. Her counterpart in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, also called on Sessions to resign and said a special prosecutor was needed to investigate allegations of Russian interference. And the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, condemned Sessions for misleading Congress. “When Sen. Sessions testified under oath that ‘I did not have communications with the Russians,’ his statement was demonstrably false, yet he let it stand for weeks,” Cummings remarked in a statement. “Attorney General Sessions should resign immediately, and there is no longer any question that we need a truly independent commission to investigate this issue.”

Speaking to reporters following an event in Newport News, Virginia, President Trump said that Sessions had his “total” confidence and that he shouldn’t recuse himself. Given Flynn’s fate—for whom Trump also had “total” confidence—this statement may prove ominous.

As for Sessions himself? At a news conference on Thursday afternoon, the attorney general continued his denials. “I never had meetings with Russian operatives or intermediaries about the campaign,” he said, insisting that this was the question he had responded to during his hearing and that his meetings with the Russian ambassador were not germane to Sen. Franken’s question. Even still, citing Justice Department ethics rules and his own promises during his confirmation hearing, Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from any investigation of the Trump campaign. “In the end, I have followed the right procedure, just as I promised the committee I would,” he said.

For the past two months, we’ve seen a steady drip of information regarding Trump, his campaign, and Russia. Each time, it throws his administration into chaos. Sessions won’t fall like Michael Flynn, but looking at the plumes of smoke coming from the White House, it’s hard to believe there isn’t fire. The only real question is who it will burn next.