The ongoing and slowly unfolding investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia has put the White House in a tough spot politically. On Wednesday, three major papers each broke big stories on the Russia investigation. The New York Times reported on the Obama administration’s late-stage scramble to preserve intelligence linking the Trump campaign to Russia. The Washington Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was a campaign adviser to Donald Trump, twice spoke with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. prior to the 2016 election, contradicting sworn statements that he made during his confirmation hearings. And The Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI has investigated Sessions’ Russian contacts as part of a broader Russia probe.
All this news has thrown the Russia story back to the forefront and placed a huge amount of political pressure on Sessions. He’s facing calls to resign from congressional Democrats who argue that, at a minimum, he can’t be trusted to oversee the Justice Department’s investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. campaign. After a day of fawning press coverage of President Donald Trump’s joint speech to Congress, the White House is back to defensive scrambling as it tries to explain yet another undisclosed link between Russia and the president's election campaign.
Even Republicans are rattled by this news. Until Thursday morning, the GOP position on the investigation of Trump's possible links to Russia was to either blow it off as a big nothingburger or feebly insist that a fair investigation be allowed to proceed. Now Republicans like House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, are calling on Sessions to recuse himself from the inquiry. This is significant because Sessions is now facing bipartisan pressure to step aside, and the White House has been left virtually alone to argue that concerns about Trump and Russia are little more than Democratic sour grapes.
But while there’s a lot of heat on Sessions right now, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. It looks pretty certain that Sessions did, in fact, lie under oath during his confirmation hearing, and the statements he and his office have put out in response to this story have been inconsistent and misleading. That said, there’s little reason to think he’s going to face perjury charges and he likely isn’t going to leave office anytime soon. As Marcy Wheeler pointed out, there’s a high bar for proving someone perjured themselves, and “lying to Congress just doesn’t get prosecuted anymore.”
Absent any legal threat, Sessions will retain the full faith and confidence of President Trump and stay on as attorney general. The former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, lost his job partly because his lies about his Russian contacts were a political headache, but also because he was relatively easy to replace. Jeff Sessions is far more important to the Trump agenda than Flynn ever was, and I can’t imagine the administration wants to go through another confirmation process for a new attorney general, especially with so much political attention being focused on the Justice Department’s investigation of the Russia issue.
The likeliest outcome of all this is that Sessions will finally elect to recuse himself from the Russia inquiry and quietly return to his larger agenda of prosecuting pot smokers and making it easier for cops to commit civil rights violations.
When it comes to the broader Russia scandal, we’re seeing again how Trump officials are making life difficult for themselves by not being forthright. The White House keeps insisting that the (known) contacts that Trump-linked people have had with Russian officials were routine and completely above board. As far as we can tell so far, that could be the case. The critical disconnect is that it doesn’t make much sense for administration officials to keep misrepresenting these contacts if, as they say, there’s nothing remarkable about them. We still don’t have a coherent explanation for why Flynn lied about his phone calls with Russia’s ambassador, even as everyone inside and outside the administration acknowledged that he did.
The steady trickle of leaks emerging from the Justice Department and the intelligence community is a strong indicator that more political damage lies in store for President Trump with regard to Russia. One way to get ahead of the storm would be for the president to welcome an independent counsel taking over the investigation. He could do that, or he and his aides could continue lying, further damage the administration’s already wrecked credibility and keep fueling a scandal that they insist is meritless. It’s tough to argue you have nothing to hide when you keep getting caught hiding stuff.