Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the ongoing investigation into supposed links between Trump campaign staffers and Russian intelligence officers and officials. The announcement came after the Washington Post reported that Sessions had met with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak last year, seeming to contradict statements he had made in is confirmation hearing. Here’s what you need to know
Q: Why did Sessions say he had no communications with the Russians when it now seems he had?
It appears that Sessions was answering a question with the context of his role with the campaign in mind. He wasn’t asked directly rather he personally met with Russians. Rather, he was asked about the broader question of the campaigns communications with Russia by Sen. Al Franken (R-MN). Here’s precisely what he said:
FRANKEN: “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’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.’
“Now, 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: “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 didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
Sessions’ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores told the Washington Post that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador in his capacity as a senator, not as a Trump campaign surrogate. “He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign — not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee,” Flores said.
The response that has caused all the trouble was information Sessions volunteered. It seems unlikely that Sessions, a lawyer by training, would perjure himself unnecessarily. Further, one of the meetings took place in Sessions’ Senate office where it was unlikely to go unnoticed. This all suggests that Sessions may have simply answered the wrong question. In a news conference Thursday, Sessions said his comments at his confirmation hearing were “honest and correct as I understood it at the time.”
Q: Why did Sessions recuse himself?
“I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.” – Attorney General Jeff Sessions
While Jeff Sessions’ mistake may have been innocent, in light of all of the other recent revelations about Trump campaign contacts with Russia it doesn’t look good. Sessions’ position on Trump’s campaign makes a continued role in the investigation untenable. Calls for him to recuse himself would have continued to mount. If he refused to do so, it might allow a perception that there was a cover-up.
Q: Who will handle the case going forward?
The case will simply be handled by Sessions’ Acting Deputy, Dana Boente. According to the Department of Justice’s statement on the matter, “Acting Deputy Attorney General and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dana Boente shall act as and perform the functions of the Attorney General with respect to any matters from which I have recused myself to the extent they exist.”
Mr. Boente is a career civil servant who was appointed by President Barack Obama as the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. He became acting attorney general after President Trump fired Sally Q. Yates for her refusal to defend Trump’s immigration executive order.
Q: Does Sessions have backing from senior Republicans?
At this point, probably yes. Assuming that the meetings were truly unrelated to the campaign, the fact that Sessions met with the Russian Ambassador isn’t particularly significant.
Q: What does all this mean to the Trump Administration?
It is another data point, albeit perhaps an innocent one, in what is a growing amount of smoke surrounding alleged connections between Trump associates and Russia’s active measures related to the 2016 election campaign. The steady stream of leaks about Russian connections is draining Trump’s political capital and complicating his ability to move forward his agenda. It may also make it more politically difficult for Republicans facing a re-election challenge in next year’s mid-terms to defend him.
Q: What are the chances of Sessions keeping his job as Attorney General?
Very good. If the only issue is two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kisylak unrelated to Russia’s active measures operation in the 2016 campaign then it is very likely that Mr. Sessions will maintain his post. However, if there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia that Sessions was a party to, his position may quickly become untenable.