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Jeff Sessions is trying to distract you from the heart of the Russia scandal

Sessions and Donald Trump don’t have to have stolen their power to have abused it.

Jeff Sessions CQ Roll Call / Bill Clark

Jeff Sessions wants you, and the rest of the American public, to think that the only important question in the Trump administration’s all-engulfing Russia scandal is this one: Did Trump’s top campaign officials help employees of the Russian government interfere in the US election? And did that collusion change the election’s outcome?

Both of those are questions that Jeff Sessions can answer “no” with, to all appearances, a clear conscience. Both of them let him off the hook.

But Sessions wasn’t called before the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify Tuesday because senators thought he might have deliberately colluded with the Russian government. He went before the committee because it’s becoming abundantly clear that the Trump administration has a problem following rules that protect the integrity of government — whether that’s failing to disclose meetings with foreign officials on security clearance forms or acting inappropriately to the director of the FBI regarding an ongoing investigation — and Sessions is part of that problem.

Sessions and other Republicans tried to argue Tuesday that if there isn’t a smoking gun of collusion at the heart of the Russia scandal, everything else is okay. They took the wrong lesson away from the old Watergate axiom that “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” and concluded that Sessions can’t be accused of participating in a cover-up because there’s no crime. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

President Donald Trump’s own worry might be (as reported in the New York Times) that the Russia investigation will somehow cast doubt on the legitimacy of his Electoral College victory. But Sessions doesn’t have to be geopolitically devious to be unethical. And the president doesn’t have to have seized power illegitimately to have abused it once he’s held it.

Jeff Sessions and the incredible shrinking denial

Here’s what Sessions said during his confirmation hearings on January 10, 2017 (emphasis added):

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D-MN): 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.

Here’s what Sessions said on March 2, 2017, in recusing himself from the FBI’s investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government (emphasis added):

I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.

Here’s what Sessions said on Tuesday (emphasis, once again, added):

I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States.

You’ll notice these are different claims. Furthermore, you’ll notice that they start out very broad and get very specific.

That’s because evidence keeps coming out that makes Sessions’s earlier claims look somewhat less than fully truthful.

No “communications with the Russians”? Sessions had at least two conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak after being named an adviser to Trump’s campaign in March 2016. No conversations “about the Trump campaign”? Sessions only started meeting with ambassadors (including Kislyak) after he was named a Trump adviser, and it’s pretty clear they were seeking him out as a Trump adviser more than as a US senator.

These gave rise to allegations that Sessions might have deliberately omitted his meetings with Kislyak in his confirmation testimony, as well as in written questions submitted after the hearing and on his security clearance form (where he omitted many of his meetings with ambassadors).

They also raised questions about whether Sessions had been fully forthcoming when he’d recused himself from the Russia investigation — or whether he knew, and had been involved in, Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey because of Comey’s behavior in the investigation from which Sessions was nominally recused.

Both of these are very serious questions about behavior by Sessions that was irresponsible at best and illegal at worst. But instead of actually addressing the substance of those allegations, Sessions preferred to address the allegations of collusion — allegations he could wholeheartedly and indignantly deny.

Power can be abused even when it wasn’t stolen

Answering the question you want to answer, rather than the one you were asked, is a well-known trick of both politicians and lawyers. But what’s telling here is that the question Sessions wants to answer is one that basically accuses him, and his colleagues, of the worst thing possible — deliberately trying to help the Russians throw the election — so that he can land firmly in the clear.

As a matter of fact, when Sessions was asked outright what question he’d want to ask himself, by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), he set the bar for misconduct even higher: “I would be asking questions related to whether or not there was an impact on this election.” The implication: If the effects of Russian hacking couldn’t conclusively be credited with Trump’s win, it would be a waste of time to investigate ties between the country and the campaign.

Putting the question this way has three benefits. For one thing, it allowed Sessions to portray himself as an aggrieved victim, a patriotic man falsely accused of treason. For another — and not incidentally — it made it seem like anyone giving Sessions a tough time was trying to delegitimize the Trump administration entirely, trying to portray it as a propped-up Putin puppet — which blurs the line between criticism and sedition, and makes it easier to dismiss your opponents as paranoid loons or outright traitors.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it allowed Sessions to build on a theme that Republicans have been airing since last week’s Comey hearing: the idea that if Trump, Sessions, and the rest of the administration weren’t covering up explicit collusion with Russia, everything they’ve done since the election — from the omissions on security clearance forms to the misdirection about why Comey was fired — is vindicated.

This is a shell game, an attempt to make the entire Russia investigation seem absurd. You shouldn’t fall for it.

You don’t have to believe that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin had Skype chats about hacking to believe that (as the intelligence community has said) Russia was engaging in skullduggery in the late stages of the election for the purpose of electing Donald Trump.

You don’t have to believe that the Trump campaign even knew about any of this, much less collaborated with it, to believe that Jeff Sessions acted inappropriately in downplaying his foreign contacts — and that he’s acting dishonestly now by refusing to treat his actions with the seriousness they deserve.

There’s a reason “obstruction of justice” is a federal crime in and of itself — the federal government wants people never to get in the way of an investigation whether or not they’re trying to hide anything.

What Sessions, Trump, and his associates stand accused of isn’t really stealing the White House. There are certainly some people who believe they seized power illegitimately on the backs of Russian interference, but that’s not the fundamental question facing them in the FBI, in Congress, or in the sphere of public opinion right now. They stand accused, rather, of abusing their power once they got it — of lying to avoid awkward questions, of overstepping the bounds of proper oversight of a federal investigation.

It’s possible to use legitimate power in illegitimate ways. That’s the conversation that Jeff Sessions, on Tuesday, very much did not want to have.

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