Every week brings a new “gotcha!” moment from President Donald Trump’s critics in the media and Congress. Right now much of the buzz is all about what Trump and Jeff Sessions knew about campaign underlings’ contacts with Russia in 2016. Has the attorney general been caught lying, even perjuring himself?
On Friday, CNN’s Chris Cillizza gave a rundown of Session’s supposed memory lapses or misrepresentations. Asked, “if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign,” Sessions testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January: “I’m not aware of any of those activities.... and I did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
Later that month, Sessions responded in the negative to the question, “have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?”
And when asked in an October appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, “you don't believe that surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians? Is that what you're saying?,” Sessions replied, “I did not and I'm not aware of anyone else that did, and I don't believe it happened.”
The problem with all this is that we now know that George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign-policy advisor, had at one point raised the possibility of arranging a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin through one of his contacts, the Russian ambassador in London. Sessions was in the room in the now-famous March 31, 2016 meeting of Trump’s foreign policy team in Washington, DC when this was mooted; indeed, he was the one who shot the idea down cold. Sessions knew about that contact, and he was supposed to know about the trip to Moscow that another foreign-policy advisor, Carter Page, took in July 2016. Page himself told Sessions about the trip beforehand.
Even some Republicans—albeit Republicans notably hostile to Trump—have said that Sessions has some explaining to do. On “Fox News Sunday,” Lindsey Graham said Sessions “should come back [before the Senate Judiciary Committee] and answer the question yet again ‘did you know anything about an effort by the Trump campaign to meet with Russia, not just collude with Russia.’” He added, “this is getting a bit old with Jeff Sessions,” though Graham insisted that “There's nothing wrong with Trump meeting with Putin if he wanted to. It would be wrong to have the Russians help the Trump campaign.”
That should be the nub of the matter, and indeed Russian coordination or other meddling in the 2016 campaign was what the questions Sessions answered before the Judiciary Committee were meant to be about in context—not whether anyone connected with the Trump campaign had ever met a Russian. Vanity Fair ’s T.A. Frank, hardly a Sessions or Trump sympathizer, poured cold water on the week’s perjury hype for just this reason.
The redoubtable Frank observes:
Yes, Sessions heard, and shot down, a suggestion from Papadopoulos of setting up a meeting between Trump and Putin—something that obviously wouldn’t be secret, were it to take place. It’s hardly a discussion of “interference.” As for this week’s CNN headline blaring that “ Carter Page testifies he told Sessions about Russia trip ,” the trip Page took in the summer of 2016, shall we recall who else, besides Jeff Sessions, knew that Carter Page was taking a trip to Russia? You. Me. Everyone. It was extensively covered at the time and soon after . Page’s speech is available on YouTube. Sessions would have been insane to try to hide it.
Page’s trip to Moscow in July 2016 was purportedly not undertaken as a representative of the Trump campaign, and campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said at the time that Page’s remarks in Russia did not reflect the campaign’s views. Any commentator might challenge these claims—but on what basis? Where is the dividing line between a private trip abroad undertaken by someone involved in a campaign and a campaign-related excursion? Page’s Moscow trip was criticized as improper at the time—it was certainly unusual. But it wasn’t secret, and if it was undertaken for some nefarious purpose of stealing an election with Russian help, no evidence has yet surfaced even to suggest as much.
As for Papadopoulos, Session’s firm “no” to the suggestion of a Trump-Putin meeting points not toward but away from collusion. When offered the opportunity to develop a Russian diplomatic contact that could lead to Putin, Sessions turned it down on behalf of the campaign. Sessions himself did run into the Russian ambassador to the United States at the time, Sergey Kislyak, at a large event (attended by some fifty ambassadors) during the Republican National Convention and exchanged pleasantries with him; he also met with Kislyak in his Senate office in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, or so he has claimed. These are slender reeds upon which to build a case for conspiring against the Republic, though it seems likely that Senator Graham will get his wish to see Sessions called before the Judiciary Committee again. If Sessions is not more careful about his answers, or if the senators are more wily about their questions, some could indeed claim perjury. But that without some evidence of actual wrongdoing with respect to Russia—a “coverup” without a crime—would be a travesty. It would be the world’s worst game of “telephone,” not a breakthrough in the next Watergate.