THE MORNING PLUM:
The news is breaking that two prominent Republicans — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz — are now calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from ongoing FBI investigations into Russian meddling in the election. This comes after The Post reported that Sessions twice spoke with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, after having claimed under oath that he had not had contact with Russian officials.
The latest moves by two senior Republicans amount to a sign that, little by little, the protective wall the GOP has built around President Trump is beginning to erode, though there is still a long, long way to go before we can expect any serious oversight.
It should be noted at the outset that the new revelations are nuanced. The Post report says that Sessions spoke twice with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, including once in Sessions’s office. But at the time, Sessions was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Testifying before Congress during his confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked what he’d do if he learned that the Trump campaign had communicated with the Russian government. He said: “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 did not have communications with the Russians.”
In that instance, Sessions appeared to be referring to himself in his role as a Trump campaign official, meaning that he did not speak to the Russian ambassador in that capacity. Meanwhile, in January, Senate Democrats asked Sessions for a written answer to this question: “Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. 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?” Sessions responded: “No.” But there, too, the context of the question could easily have led Sessions to answer in his capacity as a “senior adviser” to Trump.
Officials sympathetic to Sessions are now saying that he spoke to the ambassador in his capacity as a member of the Armed Services committee and thus didn’t consider those conversations relevant to questions about the Trump campaign’s contacts. It should be said that this is not wildly absurd — it is plausible as an explanation. Thus, the Democratic calls for Sessions to resign on this basis strike me as overblown.
But even if you accept this benign interpretation of what happened, it is not tenable for Sessions to continue overseeing the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling and potential contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. The benign interpretation doesn’t change the fact that Sessions did appear to mislead Congress about his contacts, whether intentionally or through a good-faith conclusion about their relevance. This raises additional questions about what happened in these conversations and why Sessions did mislead Congress about them, which is ample grounds for Sessions to recuse himself. After all, one of the key threads of the ongoing probe — which has reportedly determined there have been contacts of some kind between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, though no one knows much of anything about them — now may lead back to Sessions himself.
This fact set is making it impossible for Republicans to resist joining in the pressure on Sessions to recuse himself. Now, some have pointed out that Republicans are pushing for the absolute minimum here — recusal, rather than resignation. But as noted above, it’s not yet clear that resignation is warranted on the basis of these new revelations.
Meanwhile, it’s also true that we are a very long away from seeing Republicans exercising real oversight on Trump. Remember, this is taking place on multiple fronts: They are still doing nothing to prod Trump to show transparency about his business holdings and unprecedented conflicts. But there has been movement. In addition to today’s news, Rep. Devin Nunes, the GOP chair of the House Intelligence Committee, is now joining with ranking Democrat Adam Schiff in announcing that their committee’s probe into Russian meddling will also investigate potential “links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns” (i.e., the Trump campaign) and will seek “access to … law enforcement and counterintelligence reports” (i.e., FBI cooperation). That’s movement.
Yes, such movement has been incremental and hard-won. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And such movement was inevitably going to be incremental and hard-won. It’s anybody’s guess whether we will ever see real oversight. But it is not impossible, if more revelations surface and the specter of some Republicans moving causes others to hurry up and join them, as is wont to take place in such situations. And of course we don’t have any idea where these investigations will lead in the end — they could still end up getting buried by Republicans, or they could produce little in the way of serious revelations.
One thing we do know is this: If real oversight is going to happen, it will take a long time and a lot of sustained pressure — not just from Democrats, but also from the public and civil society.
* QUESTIONS SWIRL ABOUT TRUMP AND YEMEN RAID: Trump paid tribute to slain Navy SEAL Ryan Owens during his speech, but The Post reports that the episode is raising serious questions about Trump’s decision-making process:
The 36-year-old SEAL…is now at the center of a debate over the first counterterrorism operation of the Trump administration, one that has provided ammunition for critics of the new president’s decision-making process…According to current and former officials, the discussions leading up to the Jan. 29 raid…marked a departure from the more hands-on, deliberative process used by the previous administration.
The Post story is full of detail, noting that one set of deliberations attended by Trump was brief and “stands in contrast to similar deliberations during the Obama administration.”
* REPUBLICANS WANT TRUMP TO INSTILL DISCIPLINE: Congressional Republicans are split on repeal-and-replace; conservatives want flat repeal, and moderates want to keep many covered. The Washington Examiner reports that they hope Trump steps in:
The time has come, Republicans say, for Trump to personally join the legislative process, quell intraparty bickering, and build consensus among GOP factions…Republican insiders say it’s time for Trump to negotiate a deal. They want the president to crack the whip…and get conservative insurgents, who are a minority of Republicans in Congress, to join with their colleagues and support a consensus bill.
If you are looking to Trump, of all people, to instill discipline, you’re in real trouble. Seriously, shouldn’t this be easy for Trump, given that he’s the greatest dealmaker in world history?
* NEW YORK TIMES DOUBLES DOWN ON RUSSIA STORY: The Times had previously reported that intelligence officials concluded that the Trump campaign had contacts with Russian intelligence, according to four officials. Today the paper adds this:
Since the Feb. 14 article appeared, more than a half-dozen officials have confirmed contacts of various kinds between Russians and Trump associates. The label “intelligence official” is not always cleanly applied in Russia, where ex-spies, oligarchs and government officials often report back to the intelligence services and elsewhere in the Kremlin.
The White House denies this happened, but the Times claims the sources continue to mount. One key area of murkiness centers on what, exactly, constitutes a Russian intelligence official.
* GOP SENATOR SUGGESTS SESSIONS MIGHT HAVE TO RECUSE HIMSELF: In response to the news that Sessions spoke twice to the Russian ambassador, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) now says:
“I don’t know that there’s anything between the Trump campaign and the Russians. I’m not going to base my decision based on newspaper articles. If there is something there, and it goes up the chain of investigation, it is clear to me that Jeff Sessions, who is my dear friend, cannot make this decision about Trump.”
Graham is hawkish on Russia, so this is not unexpected, but if we start to see more like this from other Republicans, it will be a key tell.
* TRUMP TAPS RUSSIA CRITIC: Foreign Policy magazine reports that Trump has tapped Putin critic Fiona Hill for a top advisory post in dealing with U.S.-Russia relations:
Hill, a dual U.S.-UK citizen and former U.S. intelligence officer from 2006 to 2009, has written critically of Putin’s autocratic tendencies and desire of a “weakened U.S. presidency.”
“Blackmail and intimidation are part of his stock in trade,” she wrote in a column last summer explaining Putin’s interest in interfering in America’s presidential elections.
One wonders if this represents an actual effort to reset or merely an effort to appear to be doing so.
* TRUMP SPEECH SANG SAME OLD FEARMONGERING TUNE: E.J. Dionne skewers all the pundits claiming Trump was “presidential,” adding:
He and his handlers are well aware that commentators typically reward presidents for doing what commentators say presidents need to do….beneath the obeisance to the Beltway rules about what addresses to joint sessions of Congress are supposed to look like lurked…the man who wants to aggrandize the executive and expand the power of law enforcement by making the country believe it is under threat from dark forces that only a strong hand can deal with.
The Pundit Rules dictate that if commentators have any excuse at hand to declare a Trump “pivot,” no matter how divorced from his actual positions, they will do so.
* AND IT’S STEVE BANNON VS. IVANKA TRUMP: Axios reports that there is a pattern of differences developing between Stephen K. Bannon and Ivanka Trump on a range of issues. Note this:
Bannon is behind the Trump budget’s gutting of the regulatory state, in particular the EPA. Trump has already signed executive orders rolling back environmental rules. Ivanka encouraged and helped arrange Trump’s meeting with Al Gore and, according to the Wall Street Journal, she and her husband Jared Kushner pushed to remove language critical of the 2015 global climate deal from an upcoming executive order. This might be the starkest point of contention between the two.
It figures that Bannon would want to undermine the Paris climate accord, because, you know, America First. By the way: Where’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in this dispute?