The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Jeff Sessions has a big problem. And that’s just the beginning.

Jeff Sessions spoke twice in 2016 with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, but did not mention this during his confirmation hearing. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

The swooning from the conservative and “objective” pundits over Donald Trump’s speech Tuesday night seems very long ago this Thursday morning. The Post reports that new attorney general Jeff Sessions left out an important detail from his confirmation testimony. Asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) how he would respond if there was evidence of contacts between Trump campaign members and Russian officials, Sessions said, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.” The truth, reports The Post, is that he “spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.”

One conclusion is obvious: Sessions must recuse himself from any investigation into attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election. Now that the former senator from Alabama is part of the investigation, he cannot also be in charge of it. Sessions’s defenders will argue that it’s not unusual for senators on the Armed Services committee to meet with foreign ambassadors. This is true but besides the point. The problem is not the meeting but that Sessions didn’t tell Congress about it. (The Wall Street Journal adds that “U.S. investigators have examined contacts” between Sessions and Russian officials, but it’s difficult to know how to treat that detail given the extent and current state of the investigation are unclear.)

Furthermore, there are now three different versions of what Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Sessions discussed: First, a Justice Department official told The Post, “There’s just not strong recollection of what was said.” Then a White House official told CNBC’s John Harwood there was “superficial” discussion of the election. Finally, Sessions said in a statement that he “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign.”

So either no one remembers, or they do remember and he didn’t talk about the campaign or they do remember and he did talk about the campaign but only briefly. Got it?

If Sessions had admitted to the meetings during his confirmation hearings, Democrats would have tried to make them a story, but the encounters would not look nearly as strange as they do now. (Nor would they have stopped Sessions’s confirmation: After all, his offensive past didn’t stop Republicans from voting for him either.) The question remains: Why did Sessions omit the meetings? And why the conflicting statements? Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) recognize that Sessions must recuse himself.

But a recusal is not enough: More clearly than ever, the investigation requires an special prosecutor. When Bill Clinton had his now-infamous tarmac meeting with Loretta Lynch, Republicans rightly called for Lynch to recuse herself and for a special prosecutor to take charge of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices. Among those Republicans: then-Sen. Jeff Sessions. A recusal will not wash away the stench of mistrust over the investigation if it’s still conducted by a Sessions-led Justice Department. This is especially true given just how many current and former Trump associates are now part of the investigation: former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign manager Paul Manafort and others (potentially including Sessions). (This doesn’t include other Trump administration officials with less direct connections to Russia, such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s vice presidency of a Cypriot bank with ties to Putin allies.)

Furthermore, the Sessions news underscores why the Senate must be careful about rushing through Cabinet nominations. Sessions is not the only Trump appointee who “forgot” things during confirmation. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told Congress that the discount shares he purchased in a biotechnology company were available to all investors. In truth, he was one of “fewer than 20” people who received a “privileged offer” to purchase the shares. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testified that the bank he headed during the mortgage crisis did not engage in “robo-signing” — i.e. employees routinely signing foreclosure documents “without actually knowing whether the facts contained in those documents were correct” — despite pages upon pages of evidence that it did. Senate Republicans also jammed through Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s confirmation before the release of emails showing him in close coordination with oil and gas interests while he was Oklahoma’s attorney general. With so many Trump appointees running into disclosure troubles, it’s all the more right and important for Senate Democrats to resist Senate Republicans forcing through future appointees.

As my Post colleague Greg Sargent puts it, “the protective wall the GOP has built around President Trump is beginning to erode.” That’s encouraging, if belated. At the moment, however, all we have from Republicans are words, and all we have from the Trump administration are stonewalling and conflicting stories. Real progress will come only when Sessions actually recuses himself and a special prosecutor takes charge.