Unlike his boss, who claims he possesses “one of the greatest memories of all time,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a man who gazes into the past and sees only a fog of out-of-focus associates and half-remembered events. But in his testimony today before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions may have hit on the new Trump administration defense for the Russia scandal, one that can be applied to almost any future revelation.
Its essence is that the Trump campaign was such an ungodly, bumbling mess that it was simply incapable of colluding with the Russians in their campaign to undermine Hillary Clinton, help Donald Trump get elected, and generally disrupt and discredit the American electoral system.
As weaselly a defense as that may seem, it contains a good bit of truth. With each new revelation about the campaign’s contacts with Russia, a picture is filling out. It’s one not of a well-organized collusion conspiracy, but instead of a bunch of nincompoops engaging in a kind of ongoing, ad hoc, fitful sort-of-collusion, one that involved lots of meetings, lots of emails, and lots of contacts between various Russians with Kremlin connections and people at different levels of the campaign. Whether it fits your definition of “collusion,” it was one heck of an incompetent conspiracy.
This is what Sessions emphasized as a way of explaining his own faulty memory. Previously he had denied under oath that he met with any Russians during the campaign, a denial that was subsequently revealed to be false, since he had met with the Russian ambassador. He had also said, when asked whether he had any contact with Russians, “I did not, and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened.”
But it has since been revealed that he chaired a meeting at which George Papadopoulos suggested that he could arrange a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin using the Russians he was in contact with. Sessions reportedly shut the idea down, which might make him look like the sensible person in the room were it not for the fact that he had already denied anything of the sort was ever discussed.
But today, Sessions’s faulty memory came to the rescue. “I had no recollection of this meeting until I saw these news reports,” Sessions said at today’s hearing. But he added: “I do now recall that the March 2016 meeting at the Trump hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting.”
Problem solved! He also described the foreign policy advisory team he led this way: “I was asked to lead, inform, and find some people who would join and meet with Mr. Trump and give him advice and support regarding foreign policy, and I did so, although we were not a very effective group, really.” This was after he described the entire Trump campaign as “a form of chaos every day from day one.”
It’s hard to disagree, but the contacts keep piling up. There was the meeting that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had with Russians connected to the Kremlin on the promise of dirt about Hillary Clinton. There were the contacts multiple Trump officials like Papadopoulos and Carter Page had with Russians, and the fact that others within the Trump campaign were likely more aware of these contacts than we had been led to believe. Among other things, Papadopoulos was told that the Russians had “thousands of emails” that could prove damaging to Clinton, before the Russian hacks came to light; we still don’t know whom in the Trump campaign he relayed that juicy tidbit to. And I promise you, there will be more revealed about Michael Flynn; the fact that Trump was so incredibly eager to protect him after he left the White House is a flashing red light.
And Julia Ioffe reports on secret correspondence between Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks, which was essentially acting as an agent of the Kremlin during the campaign (and may still be to this day). Perhaps most striking, when WikiLeaks released a batch of information, it wrote to Trump Jr. suggesting that his father tweet about the revelations, which Trump did just 15 minutes later.
So to review, this appears to be what happened in that case: 1) Russia hacks the emails of Democrats, including Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. 2) Russia passes some of what it finds to WikiLeaks for public release. 3) WikiLeaks asks Trump’s son to promote the release. 4) Trump urges media to focus on WikiLeaks’ findings.
Was that a violation of the law? Maybe not. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump Jr.’s defense will be, “Hey, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing!”
We probably shouldn’t expect that at the end of all this, Robert S. Mueller III is going to discover a clear smoking gun, like a document entitled “Plan for Collusion With Russia” initialed by Trump himself. This crew doesn’t seem to have been capable of planning anything. What we have seen already, however, is plenty of evidence to establish that people within the campaign were eager to take whatever help they could get from Russia, even if it appeared to be coming directly or indirectly from the Kremlin. And we should never forget that the president of the United States went on national television and admitted that he fired the FBI director to shut down the Russia investigation.
All that is more than enough of a scandal. And there are almost certainly more revelations to come — no matter how forgetful and stupid the Trump team claims it is.