At dawn on Thursday, in a sign that all the gears of Washington’s scandal machinery were lurching into motion, MSNBC alerted viewers that its cameras were poised to capture images of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on his way to work. When Sessions appeared he gave a tight smile and repeated, with little variation, a statement that he had issued overnight: “I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign. And those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false.” Asked if he would recuse himself from the growing investigation into Russian efforts to help Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, Sessions gave only a general reply: “I have said that whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself.”
Sessions was responding to a Washington Post report, published Wednesday night, in which Department of Justice officials confirmed that he had twice met the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign. Sessions also appears to have misled the Senate about his contacts. At a January 10th confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee, Senator Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat, asked Sessions what he would do, as Attorney General, “if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign.” Sessions, under oath, replied, “I’m not aware of any of those activities.” He added, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
The meaning of that statement—“I did not have communications with the Russians”—is now in dispute, and Sessions’s evolving defenses have only made matters worse. A Trump Administration official told a reporter that Sessions’s interactions with Kislyak were only “superficial comments about election-related news, not substance of their discussion.” Separately, a Justice Department official framed it as a memory lapse, telling the Post, “There’s just not strong recollection of what was said.” Sessions himself tried one more tack, with his line denying that he met the Russian Ambassador “to discuss any political campaign”—a phrasing that may hinge on the meaning of “to.”
This tortured effort by the federal government’s chief law-enforcement officer to explain himself has opened a new phase of the Trump-Putin affair. From here on out, Trump and his associates will be scrutinized as much for what they said and didn’t say about Russian contacts as for whom they met and why, making it increasingly difficult for them to attract support on other elements of their agenda. John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, who pleaded guilty to a felony for his role in covering up the Watergate scandal, tweeted, “Hey Donald, a tip: Cover-ups don’t get easier as they proceed. Russia tie leaks drown your joint session speech in less than 24 hrs.”
By breakfast, Sessions’s ability to oversee the investigation was becoming untenable, even among the Republicans in Congress who have been most reluctant to acknowledge the scale of the Russia investigation. Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had previously batted away suggestions that he should investigate former national-security adviser Mike Flynn, who was pushed out, after only twenty-four days in office, for falsely denying to his colleagues that he had spoken to the Russian Ambassador about sanctions. Chaffetz had said of the Flynn case, “It’s taking care of itself.” But, on Thursday, Chaffetz urged Sessions to “clarify his testimony and recuse himself.”
As Sessions becomes engulfed in the Russia investigation, several other questions are emerging related to probes by law enforcement, the intelligence community, and Congress:
Among Trump’s advisers and associates, who, exactly, met with Russian envoys and representatives, and why? In the magazine this week, David Remnick, Joshua Yaffa, and I reported that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, met with Kislyak in Trump Tower during the transition. When we asked the White House about it, the press office replied only that a “brief meeting took place during the transition period. The two spoke about potentially establishing a more open line of communication in the future. The meeting was similar to dozens of others that took place over the course of the campaign with representatives of other foreign countries. They have not reconnected since the initial meeting, which was after the election and prior to inauguration.” Given that Sessions and Flynn have been found to have had problematic contacts, it is time for the White House to give a full accounting of its communications with Russian representatives.
Did Trump himself attend meetings with anyone connected to the Russian government during the campaign?
At a news conference on February 16th, when Trump was asked if anyone in his campaign had been in contact with Russia, he said, “Nobody that I know of.” He also said, “I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years.” In fact, Trump spoke to Vladimir Putin less than three weeks before that—an event that the White House announced at the time, on January 28th, So how are we to understand the President’s plainly false statement? If he doesn’t acknowledge the meetings that his office has announced, what are we to make of his categorical declarations that he had no contact with Russian representatives during the campaign? Now that he knows that Sessions, one of his earliest supporters, was in contact with the Russian Ambassador, will he take steps to reassure members of Congress that he is taking the matter seriously and has been honest about his own actions?
Did any of Trump’s businesses receive Russian money through indirect channels?
In an update last month on the criminal and counterintelligence investigations, Reuters reported that agencies are examining “financial transactions by Russian individuals and companies who are believed to have links to Trump associates.” The transactions in question, Reuters sources said, “involve investments by Russians in overseas entities that appear to have been undertaken through middlemen and front companies.” A former federal prosecutor with experience in counterintelligence told me recently, referring to such arrangements as an avenue for investigators, “Of the various elements, this one has a lot of potential.”
Beyond the people in his formal campaign structure, did any of Trump’s business aides have contacts with individuals connected to the Russian government?
On Wednesday, the Times reported that allied intelligence agencies, including the British and the Dutch, “provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials—and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin—and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former American officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence.” In various reports, intelligence officials have cited intercepted communications within the Kremlin and beyond discussing contacts with Trump’s associates.
Which Republicans in the Senate and House might redouble their commitment to the Russia investigation, and which will continue to help the White House deny the story?
Other than Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, much of the conference has been reluctant to take a hard line. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, of California, the man in charge of investigating alleged contacts between the Trump Administration and Russia, said Monday that “there’s nothing there,” even though he has yet to receive any documents or hold hearings.
Has the Trump Administration taken any steps to obfuscate alleged contacts with Russian representatives?
This is the coverup question. The White House counsel, Don McGahan, sent a memo this week to staff instructing them “to preserve materials that could be connected to Russian interference in the 2016 election and other related investigations,” the A.P. reported. Last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued its own “preservation letter” to the White House, advising it not to destroy any records that might be relevant. History suggests that the temptation to hide or destroy evidence is powerful, and the consequences, known as “process crimes,” can proliferate quickly. In the Watergate scandal, more than thirty people eventually pleaded guilty or were convicted of crimes including perjury, burglary, wiretapping, and obstruction of justice. Most of those offenses were not directly related to coördinating the burglary of the Democratic National Committee, in June, 1972; they were, as the cliché holds, committed during the coverup.
Finally, what do these revelations mean for the future of Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Democrats have accused him of perjury for his reply to Franken and other Senators. But perjury requires a specific legal standard of deception that would have to be met, and prosecuted. In the meantime, Sessions is in the uncomfortable position of standing in contrast to his own prior statements. In 1999, Sessions spoke in favor of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, saying, “The chief law-enforcement officer of the land, whose oath of office calls on him to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, crossed the line and failed to defend and protect the law . . . It is crucial to our system of justice that we demand the truth.” His words are relevant now.