“I remind you that this Congress impeached a president for something so far less, having nothing to do with his duties as president of the United States.”
— House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), news conference, March 2, 2017
In calling for an investigation into the veracity of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s comments to Congress, Pelosi claimed Congress impeached former president Bill Clinton “for something far less” than what Sessions had done.
Sessions spoke twice in 2016 with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, The Washington Post reported, but did not disclose this detail during his Senate confirmation hearing as attorney general, when asked about possible contacts between the Russian government and President Trump’s campaign. In a separate written questionnaire, Sessions denied being in contact with any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election.
So is it really the case that former president Bill Clinton was impeached for “something so far less” than Sessions?
Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, said: “Clinton’s actions involved personal matters while Sessions’s actions involve matters of state.” Pelosi has a point: While the two cases involve statements made under oath, the subject matters are vastly different.
Clinton gave misleading testimony in a private lawsuit filed by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, and his perjurious statements were about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, not the plaintiff.
Sessions gave potentially misleading testimony in a public Senate hearing about Russian involvement in U.S. presidential elections — an issue much more germane to national security than Clinton’s sex life. But we don’t know yet whether Sessions perjured himself.
Let’s review the two cases.
The Starr report found 11 possible grounds for Clinton’s impeachment, all having to do with Clinton’s false statements under oath about his sexual activities with Lewinsky. Clinton was accused of repeatedly lying under oath to a grand jury, in his civil deposition, and even to his own lawyer, investigators found. Clinton abused his constitutional authority by lying to the public and Congress throughout 1998, and tried to obstruct justice, investigators found.
From the Starr report:
President Clinton answered a series of questions about Ms. Lewinsky, including:
Q: Did you have an extramarital sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky?
Q: If she told someone that she had a sexual affair with you beginning in November of 1995, would that be a lie?
WJC: It’s certainly not the truth. It would not be the truth.
Q: I think I used the term “sexual affair.” And so the record is completely clear, have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in Deposition Exhibit 1, as modified by the Court?
Mr. Bennett: I object because I don’t know that he can remember —
Judge Wright: Well, it’s real short. He can — I will permit the question and you may show the witness definition number one.
WJC: I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I’ve never had an affair with her.
President Clinton reiterated his denial under questioning by his own attorney:
Q: In paragraph eight of [Ms. Lewinsky’s] affidavit, she says this, “I have never had a sexual relationship with the President, he did not propose that we have a sexual relationship, he did not offer me employment or other benefits in exchange for a sexual relationship, he did not deny me employment or other benefits for rejecting a sexual relationship.” Is that a true and accurate statement as far as you know it?
WJC: That is absolutely true.
“There is substantial and credible information that the President’s lies about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky were abundant and calculating,” according to investigators. Lewinsky testified that she and Clinton engaged in sexual relations and there was a DNA sample to support her testimony.
In December 1998, the House impeached Clinton, accusing Clinton of perjury and of obstruction of justice. Then, in February 1999, the Senate acquitted Clinton of both charges. Five Republicans and all 45 Democrats supported full acquittal.
As a senator, Sessions voted to convict Clinton on both charges, and said at the time: “It is crucial to our system of justice that we demand the truth. I fear that an acquittal of this President will weaken the legal system by providing an option for those who consider being less than truthful in court.”
Now, here’s what we know about Sessions and his statements to Congress so far.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.): “CNN has just published a story, and I’m telling you this about a news story that has just been published, so I’m not expecting you to know whether or not it’s true or not, but CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that ‘Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.’ These documents also allegedly say ‘There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.’ Now again I am telling you this as it’s coming out so, ah, you know. But if it’s true it’s obviously extremely serious, and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign what will you do?”
Sessions: “Senator Franken, I am 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, and I am unable to comment on it.”
Sessions was not asked whether he, as a campaign surrogate, communicated with the Russian government. Franken asked what Sessions would do if the CNN report turned out to be true and there was “any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government.” Sessions says in general that he is not aware of such communications. Then he gives a caveat that he was called to be a surrogate, and did not have communications with Russia.
In a written questionnaire, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Sessions: “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.”
The Post found, however, that Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on at least two occasions. Once was after an event on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in July 2016, and the other was a private meeting with Kislyak.
After the event at RNC, a small group of ambassadors (including Kislyak) approached Sessions, The Post reported: “Sessions then spoke individually to some of the ambassadors, including Kislyak, the official said. In the informal exchanges, the ambassadors expressed appreciation for his remarks and some of them invited him to events they were sponsoring, said the official, citing a former Sessions staffer who was at the event.”
Sessions’s spokeswoman told The Post that Sessions did not consider his conversations relevant to the senators’ questions: “He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign — not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee.”
His spokeswoman also characterized Sessions’s September conversation with Kislyak as one of more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. Officials also said Sessions did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak in the private meeting.
So did Sessions intentionally mislead senators by saying he, as a campaign surrogate, did not communicate with Russia? Or was he simply saying he was unaware of evidence to support CNN’s report? Why didn’t Sessions disclose to Franken or Leahy that he had spoken twice to the Russian ambassador during the campaign, in his capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee? It remains unclear.
“Clinton was acquitted by the Senate after a defense stating that he did not commit perjury as his statements involved inconsistencies and he couldn’t be liable for perjury; Sessions’s statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee could not be clearer,” Hammill said.
The Pinocchio Test
The details about Sessions’s interactions with Kislyak are still unfolding, and his explanations about his misleading answers to Franken and Leahy are murky. However, in the context of Franken’s question about members affiliated with the Trump campaign communicating with the Russian government, it is unclear whether Sessions was intentionally making a false statement.
While the Sessions and Clinton cases both involve statements made under oath, the circumstances are vastly different. (Pelosi may be better off comparing Sessions’s case to that of Richard G. Kleindienst, former acting attorney general in 1972.) If one were to weigh Pelosi’s claim based on whether Sessions and Clinton lied under oath, it’s clear Clinton’s case is not “far less” than Sessions’s. But the content of Clinton’s lies (his sex life) was “far less” important than the content of Sessions’s statements (about potential foreign influence in U.S. elections). Pelosi’s staff indicated that she was making a distinction between the content of their statements.
Still, it’s too early to jump to such conclusions and make such an extreme statement. Pelosi earns Two Pinocchios.
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