Democrats and their liberal allies are calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign over testimony during his confirmation process regarding his contacts with Russian officials during the Trump campaign. This is absurd. General Sessions did not commit perjury, either under the legal standard or the looser political standard, or intentionally mislead Congress or the American people. Indeed, in the statements at issue, he responded as any skilled lawyer would—by actually answering the question that was asked.
During his lengthy confirmation hearings, then-Senator Sessions was asked by Senator Al Franken about a news story regarding compromising information the Russians allegedly had about Donald Trump: “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.’ . . . [I]f 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 responded: “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 responded, “No,” to Senator Patrick Leahy’s written interrogatory: “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?”
The context of both of these questions make clear the Senators were asking, and Sessions was responding, about interactions with Russian officials with regard to the 2016 election. Senator Franken’s question specified communications by persons affiliated with the campaign “in the course of this campaign” with a lengthy introduction describing a news story about an exchange of information between the campaign and the Russian government. Senator Leahy’s question specified communication “about the 2016 election.”
Then-Senator Sessions had two encounters with the Russian Ambassador last year. One was a brief encounter as part of a larger group after Sessions gave a speech at an event, of which one sponsor was President Obama’s Department of State, during the Republican National Convention. The second was a meeting in Session’s senate office with several senior aides.
Senator Sessions said multiple times yesterday that he did not discuss the 2016 election with the Russian Ambassador or communicate with him as a person affiliated with the Trump campaign during either encounter. His contacts were only in his role as a sitting senator.
Could then-Senator Sessions have given more detail in response to these questions? Sure. If he had a crystal ball and could have anticipated this present, made up controversy, he could have explained everything as he did yesterday. Certainly this would have spared everyone a great deal of media and liberal hand-wringing in the past couple days.
Alas, clairvoyance is not a prerequisite qualification for being Attorney General. So we might just be stuck with having a good lawyer, rather than a seer, as Attorney General.
In all the attacks on Attorney General Sessions in recent months, even liberals have not claimed that he is not a skilled lawyer. He practiced law very effectively prior to his years in the Senate. Lawyers are trained to ask good questions (Senator Franken’s question does not fall into that category) and sort through data and laws to determine what is relevant to that question and what is not. Well-trained lawyers automatically categorize information into relevant and irrelevant and supply only that which is relevant. Those who lack these skills do poorly in law school and the practice of law.
As a skilled lawyer, Sessions’ would reflexively respond to the specific question asked, providing enough information to be responsive without providing irrelevant information. Through the context and specific wording of the questions, it was clear that Senators Franken and Leahy were not asking about any communication with Russian officials, only communications relating to the 2016 election. Based on the questions asked, Sessions rightly excluded the irrelevant information in responding, as one would expect a lawyer to do in responding to a question.
But it is not only Sessions’ testimony that is under attack. Liberals, and their media allies, are acting as if by meeting with the Russian Ambassador, then-Senator Sessions was doing something highly unusual and problematic. Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill declared on Twitter yesterday that as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, like former Senator Sessions, she had never met with the Russian Ambassador. Yet, a quick search of her Twitter feed reveals at least two meetings with the Russian Ambassador in recent years.
The simple fact of the matter is that senators and representatives routinely meet with ambassadors and foreign government officials. When the Democrats twist and highlight then-Senator Sessions’ meetings with the Russian Ambassador, the left is distorting the story and failing to mention that this is part of the job for members of Congress.
House Speaker Paul Ryan attended a reception at the Capitol that had scores of ambassadors within the last year, he just met with the Indian Ambassador this week, and members of Congress meet with foreign ambassadors “all the time.”
Over just the last few years, news stories of members of Congress meeting with or working with foreign diplomats for a variety of reasons have regularly been in the news. In late 2015, while the Senate was considering the Iran Deal and Treaty, many foreign ambassadors met with senators to lobby for the Iran Deal. This included top diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China.
In 2014, leading up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Senator Chuck Schumer launched a campaign and wrote to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak requesting yogurt from the United States be allowed into Russia for American Olympic athletes. Also in 2014, Senators Dick Durbin and John McCain met with Ambassadors from Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and even Russian Ambassador Kislyak to discuss Russian incursions into Crimea over a several week period. Meanwhile in 2013, a bipartisan group of Senators met with Ambassador Kislyak to plead for the end of the ban on adoption ban in Russia by American parents. The meeting was organized by then-Senator Landrieu and attended by Senators Casey, Whitehouse, McCaskill, Klobuchar, Reed, Bozeman, Wicker, and others.
Sessions himself met with over two dozen ambassadors from different countries just last year.
Then-Senator Sessions’ responses to the two questions about contacts with Russian officials regarding the 2016 election were direct and accurate responses to the questions he was asked. And the two encounters he had with the Russian Ambassador last year were normal interactions between a foreign ambassador and a member of Congress, not the suspicious conspiracy that Democrats and liberals would have us believe.
Yesterday, Attorney General Sessions wisely announced that he would recuse himself from any investigations into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia to avoid any appearance of impropriety. That should put this non-issue to rest.
David A. Warrington is Vice President for Election Education of the Republican National Lawyers Association and a Partner at LeClairRyan. All opinions expressed are his personal opinions.