Jeff Sessions, already one of the most controversial and most influential members of Donald Trump’s Cabinet, now finds himself enmeshed in a major scandal. He twice stated — once under oath at his confirmation hearing, another time in answer to a written question from the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member — that he never discussed the 2016 campaign with officials from the Russian government.
The truth is that he had at least two conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — one at an event at the Republican National Committee and another at his office on the same day that Trump’s views of Russia were a major news story.
The revelations have led to calls for his resignation over the issue of lying, and to calls for him to step aside in favor of an independent investigation of ties between Russia and Trumpworld figures on the grounds that he is now part of the investigation. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was already forced to resign from the Trump administration after it came to light that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his own conversations with Kislyak. And earlier, Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was forced to resign under a cloud of stories about payments he allegedly received from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
A big part of what makes these stories hard to follow is that the context has shifted massively since Election Day. During the campaign, Trump campaigned on an openly pro-Russian policy agenda and spoke constantly of WikiLeaks as central to his campaign message. Under the circumstances, it’s not clear why Trumpworld figures would regard discussions with Russian officials or Russia-linked figures as problematic. Looking at the problematic Kislyak contacts in the broader context of what else was going on in the world makes it clear why skeptics aren’t going to just take Sessions’s word for it that these discussions had nothing to do with the campaign.
Sessions, Flynn, Trump, and Russia: a timeline
A timeline of Donald Trump and Russia could arguably go all the way back to his late-’80s musings on the desirability of a US-Soviet alliance against France and Pakistan. But the story of Russia and the Trump campaign became something that had more meat to it than offhand remarks friendly to Vladimir Putin right around the party conventions in the summer of 2016:
- At a platform meeting on the week of July 11, Trump campaign officials intervened to change the Republican Party campaign platform to be less supportive of American assistance in helping Ukraine fight off Russian military incursions.
- On the morning of July 18, the Heritage Foundation staged a panel for an audience of foreign ambassadors in Cleveland for the convention at which, according to delegate Victor Ashe, “much of the discussion focused on Russia's incursions into Ukraine and Georgia.”
- Jeff Sessions, though apparently not a panelist at the discussion, attended it and afterward “spoke individually to some of the ambassadors, including Kislyak.”
- On July 23, WikiLeaks released emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee that revealed nothing illegal and offered no smoking gun evidence of misconduct or primary rigging, but which angered supporters of Bernie Sanders with revelations that DNC staff had talked about Sanders and his campaign in a disparaging way.
- On July 24 with the Democratic convention set to start the next day, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz stepped down from her position as part of an ongoing effort by Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s campaign to put the primary behind them and unify against Trump.
- On July 27, Donald Trump gave a press conference at which he sought to fan the flames of Democratic disunity and called on Russian hackers to assist his campaign: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
- On July 31, Sessions (who used to be a conventional GOP Russia hawk) went on CNN and took a new, softer line on Russia: “This whole problem with Russia is really disastrous for America, for Russia, and for the world. Donald Trump is right. We need to figure out a way to end this cycle of hostility that’s putting this country at risk, costing us billions of dollars in defense, and creating hostilities.”
- On August 14, the New York Times reported the existence of a ledger that claimed Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort had been paid $12.7 million in cash by a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine for which he used to work.
- On August 19, Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign, in part due to the cloud of suspicions regarding his ties to Russia.
- On August 21, longtime Trump associate and veteran GOP campaign operative Roger Stone tweeted a prediction: “Trust me, it will soon the [sic] Podesta's time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary”
- On September 7, Trump made a primetime NBC News appearance during which he made comments favorable to Russia and Putin that played very poorly with most US political pundits. Chris Cillizza called them “bananas,” for example.
- On September 8, Sessions and Kislyak met in Sessions’s office. It’s not clear what they talked about, but an administration official told NBC that during this kind of meeting between a senator and a diplomat, people “often make superficial comments about election-related news” without the election being the subject of the meeting per se.
- Starting on October 7 and continuing throughout the month, WikiLeaks published emails stolen from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. The emails were not released as a single dump, the way one might do for simple public information purposes, but rather dribbled out to create a steady drip-drip-drip of stories.
- Over the final month of the campaign, Trump mentioned WikiLeaks or emails published by WikiLeaks 164 times — making WikiLeaks a key theme of his campaign’s closing argument.
- On November 8, Donald Trump was elected president.
- On December 29, lame-duck President Barack Obama announced sanctions against Russia to penalize it for its involvement in the DNC and Podesta hacks.
- The same day, Flynn had a conversation with Kislyak during which sanctions were discussed.
- On December 30, Putin somewhat unexpected announced there would be no retaliation for the sanctions.
- Later that day, Donald Trump tweeted: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!”
Trump’s Russia pivot has fixed some problems but exacerbated others
If that were the end of the story, more detailed revelations about collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government might not actually be very significant. Trump ran an avowedly pro-Russian campaign, and he ran as someone who avowedly saw WikiLeaks as a key ally in that campaign.
“I love WikiLeaks!” as he put it.
But the pro-Russian foreign policy has not emerged. Indeed, with Flynn gone, the Trump national security team — James Mattis at Defense, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, Nikki Haley as UN ambassador, Dan Coats as director of national intelligence, and Mike Pompeo as CIA director — are conventional Russia hawks. The lone exception, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson at the State Department, seems to have largely adopted establishment views and is marginalized in the administration anyway.
On one level, this obviously reassures people who take a skeptical view of Russia’s role in the world.
But on another level, it exacerbates questions about campaign-era behavior by transmogrifying what an avowedly pro-Russian Trump administration might have seen as laudable meetings into sources of embarrassment. And since the Russian government itself is probably well-apprised of whatever meetings happened, that embarrassment becomes a possible point of leverage for a foreign country that is perhaps not enjoying the rosy relationship with the United States that it expected.
Meanwhile, Trump himself is not a conventional politician and doesn’t necessarily abide by a conventional policymaking process. Chief strategist Steve Bannon has clear influence on national security issues, and a hazy but real interest in some form of “nationalist international” that would unite Trumpism with far-right and Russophilic political movements in Europe.
It would be convenient from the standpoint of establishment Republicans to simply let bygones be bygones, take Trump’s newfound appreciation for NATO at face value, and move on to repealing Obamacare. But with the attorney general himself now caught up in the mess, there’s simply no way the obvious questions about possible collusion can be adequately answered without some more independent inquiry.