Commentary: The right way to handle Jeff Sessions

“I did not have communications with the Russians” goes down with “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” as one of the bigger lies in American political history.

U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrives to attend an a speech by U.S. President Donald Trump at a joint session of congress in Capitol in Washington, U.S., February 28, 2017. Picture taken February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a lawyer, as was President Bill Clinton. Unless they cut class in law school, they’ve always known it’s bad practice to raise your right hand, swear to tell the truth, and then tell nothing like the truth. Clinton parsed perjury with the phrase “it depends what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Sessions will have to top that by refining the meaning of the word “not.”

In case you caught some sleep last night, here’s what’s up. The whiff of cordite from a smoking gun is wafting through the marbled corridors of Congress.

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During Sessions’ sworn testimony at his Jan. 10 confirmation hearings, he replied, when asked what he would do if he learned of evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communicated with representatives from Moscow during the 2016 campaign: “I did not have communications with the Russians” during that time. He did, we now know, speak twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, according to Justice Department officials and reported by the Washington Post.

That’s not a memory lapse. It’s malfeasance, or worse, by the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

Sessions was a United States Senator was when he joined the Trump campaign. He served as a trusted campaign adviser for Trump, as did the ex-general Michael Flynn, whose 24 days as the president’s national security adviser ended in disgrace. Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Why he lied remains a mystery.

Sessions, it now seems, lied in his testimony before his fellow senators. He met the ambassador in his Senate office in September. He also spoke with Kislyak in July.

After 30 years covering matters of intelligence and espionage, and knowing that the Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, surrounds himself with a trusted inner circle of spies, I suspect that the ambassador works closely with intelligence officers. Ambassadors of many nations, including our own, often work in sync with their intelligence services, sharing information and comparing notes.

Members of Congress with long memories are harking back to Watergate, and not without reason. Democrats want to take the Trump administration down hearing by hearing, resignation by resignation. “After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the attorney general must resign,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement on Wednesday. “Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said to CNN: “If there’s something there that the FBI thinks is criminal in nature, then for sure you need a special prosecutor. If that day ever comes, I’ll be the first one to say it needs to be somebody other than Jeff.” – because Sessions cannot investigate himself or his commander in chief in this case, which may evolve into sworn interrogations, grand jury testimony, indictments and worse for ranking members of Team Trump. Graham’s liberal Democratic colleague, Ron Wyden of Oregon, concurs in the need for a special counsel to investigate Trump administration ties to Russia. Both men serve on key committees which could make that happen – soon.

Their colleagues, given the traditions of the Senate, will likely start with a ceremonial sharpening of knives during closed hearings of the intelligence, foreign relations, and armed services committees, conferring behind closed doors with the nation’s leading intelligence officials, including FBI Director James Comey.

Sessions is Comey’s superior; the FBI director must report to the attorney general, who has the power to approve or quash the Bureau’s investigations.

The FBI, as we all now know, is investigating the scope and substance of contacts between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. It’s a counterintelligence investigation, aimed at uncovering active espionage operations by a foreign adversary. It’s no secret that Putin wanted to help Trump become president, as part of a global effort to disrupt western democracies, in hydra-headed hybrid warfare – covert operations, cyber-attacks, propaganda (aka fake news), and the weaponizing of Wikileaks and Twitter bots.

Mission accomplished. Round one of Cold War 2.0 to Russia.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think the rule of law is stronger than any politician or any president. And if skeletons keep tumbling out, Sessions might not serve for many years as the attorney general. He almost certainly won’t be investigating this case for long.

The FBI will do its job. It seems the Senate, if not the House, will look into these deep matters of state. The press will keep ferreting out facts. And if this winds up in court, justice will be done.

About the Author

Tim Weiner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. His books include “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” and “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.”

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.