The idea that the president’s choice to be U.S. attorney general, the nation’s top law enforcement official, would lie under oath to the Senate committee considering his nomination — people who were his colleagues as senators for 20 years — is stunning and possibly a sign of just how far down the standard of ethics in Washington has descended.
Nonetheless, that is exactly what Jefferson B. Sessions, who went on to be voted into office as attorney general, did. Asked a direct question about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials, he replied, “I did not have contact with the Russians.” It turns out subsequently, after the Senate had approved his nomination, that he did, on two occasions, once in his own office.
One of the problems of the descent of a nation, particularly one as large and important as the United States of America, is that the fall can occur, step by step, in the form of death by a thousand cuts. I am not saying that it is all over for us yet, but I am saying that Mr. Sessions’ lie to the senators, the position he was being considered for and the subsequent so-far refusal of President Donald Trump to fire Mr. Sessions for what he did, are grave evidence of the low state of ethics at the very top of our government.
The fact that Mr. Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak does not particularly send me into orbit. It is the job of foreign ambassadors, whether they represent Russia, Israel, Germany or Papua New Guinea, to try to meet with as many senior American officials as they can get access to, to try to learn and to report back to their capitals what is actually going on in the United States. That certainly involves important figures in the opposition, particularly during an election year.
Thus, the fact that Mr. Sessions met with the Russians doesn’t mean that much. What does is the fact that he felt the need to lie about those meetings to the Senate. Why didn’t he just say, “Yes, I met with the Russian ambassador; he, like the rest of us, was trying to figure out what was going on in the Trump campaign, as part of the American elections.” That, actually, would have got him a laugh in the Senate committee. Instead, he lied, and later got caught lying. So, why?
Mr. Trump should can Mr. Sessions. Instead, he has tweeted in his defense, in effect, “Look over here! President Barack Obama bugged Trump Towers during the election,” an attempt to distract the American public from Mr. Sessions’ interesting lie to the senators. He may have done that because behind Mr. Sessions’ denial of contact with the Russians lay something worth covering up.
I am still having a lot of trouble trying to figure out what it is exactly that the Russians did for the Trump campaign. There is no doubt in my mind that they wanted Mr. Trump to win, although, in reality, it is equally possible that Hillary R. Clinton would have done as much damage as president to the American republic as Mr. Trump will be able to do, if her management of her campaign is any evidence.
There is also no doubt in my mind that the Russians intervened in our American political campaign. There are too many smoking guns out there and far too many Trump supporters who were in the game and in contact with the Russians, apart from Mr. Sessions and departed National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn. (See, for example, the comprehensive piece “Active Measures” in The New Yorker of March 6, which spells it out.)
What I still don’t get is what the Russians were able to do for the Trump campaign. It probably wasn’t money (even though they gave Mr. Flynn $40,000 for appearing in Moscow at an event for RT, the Russian TV channel). The Trump campaign never seemed to be short of — or need much — money. Did the Russian intelligence services provide the Trump campaign transcripts of internal Clinton campaign communications? That can’t have been that useful, even if they did. For the Russians to have accumulated brownie points by doing favors for the Trump campaign, the Russians had to have been able to provide the Trump campaign something it wanted. I still don’t see what that might have been. We already knew Melania was born in Slovenia and Donald in Queens. Hero-worship? Putin?
What we are left with is a still-vital need to know just what exactly the Russians did in our 2016 elections. That quest would not be carried out with the intention of taking the presidency away from Mr. Trump and the Republicans. The objective would be simply to be able to take the measures necessary to assure that neither they nor any other foreign power would be able to interfere in future U.S. elections. The sanctity of our national elections is an area of fully justified xenophobic fascism.
We are also left with the odious but necessary task of replacing Mr. Sessions as attorney general by someone who would not feel free to simply lie to U.S. senators under oath. “No, no, I didn’t poison your dog.” It was not only breathtakingly dishonest; it was also stupid to do so because he was bound to get caught.
So, fire Mr. Sessions and carry out a credible investigation into what the Russians did in the 2016 elections, requiring testimony under oath from Mr. Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone, Jared Kushner, Michael Cohen and, I suppose, Mr. Sessions, in spite of his until-now dodgy relationship with the truth, which we can hope is not the default position of American senators toward the truth. And, lest we forget, there are still Mr. Trump’s withheld tax returns.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (email@example.com, 412-263-1976).