To hear President Trump tell it, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Trump allies are under fire for committing no greater sin than sitting down with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.
“Just out,” Trump tweeted Saturday morning, “The same Russian Ambassador that met Jeff Sessions visited the Obama White House 22 times, and 4 times last year alone.” The implication? How could it be bad that Sessions met with the ambassador when Barack Obama’s White House had done the same?
He employed a similar strategy in lashing out at Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He posted a photo of Schumer with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pelosi with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev several years ago. Pelosi had denied having met Kislyak but, there he was, across the table from her in that photo.
Fox News and other conservative outlets joined the fun.
There are certainly any number of people in the government who have met with Kislyak at some point in time. This, after all, is his job: He acts as liaison between the Russian government and our own. And that’s why it’s simple to dig up old photos of Kislyak or other Russian leaders with prominent elected officials.
But those photos, and those interactions, are entirely beside the point.
The problem is not this, where the red line represents a meeting or relationship between the two.
The problem is that Sessions implied that the relationship during the campaign looked like this…
…in an environment where this was happening.
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The two questions at issue with Sessions are, first, why he told the Senate that he didn’t have communication with the Russians despite having met Kislyak twice last year and, second, if those meetings involved any discussion of the Trump campaign. That campaign, as you’re likely aware, has been the subject of scrutiny from intelligence officials who believe that Russia was trying to sway the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. The scrutiny has reportedly included monitoring of Trump allies who were involved in the campaign.
Sessions isn’t just Trump’s attorney general. He was one of the earliest elected officials to endorse Trump, and he served in a senior advisory position to Trump beginning in February of last year. There’s a difference between Sessions meeting with Kislyak last year and, say, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson having a professional relationship with Putin. If Sessions met Kislyak during the campaign, and Russia was hoping to ensure that Sessions’s chosen candidate won, that’s significant — particularly if Sessions then withheld information about that meeting. And particularly when he didn’t mention it while under oath.
That’s simply not at all comparable to Schumer meeting Putin a decade ago, or even Pelosi not remembering having met Kislyak in 2010.
For it to be comparable, the following would need to be the case:
- Schumer or Pelosi would have had to have been close advisers to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
- Those meetings would have had to have occurred in 2016, during the campaign.
- U.S. intelligence officials would have had to have thought that the interference Russia intended during that campaign was to see Clinton, not Trump, victorious.
- Schumer or Pelosi would have to have offered sworn testimony denying that those meetings in Step 2 took place.
That’s the point at which it becomes comparable.
Trump has two skills that he has deployed to tremendous effect over the past 18 months. The first is that he’s adept at what has been called whattaboutism — bringing up anecdotal they-did-it-too examples to counteract critiques. The second is that he’s a master of social media, and has a large base of support that’s willing to echo the specious analogies he presents.
This isn’t really goalpost-moving so much as it is arguing that everyone’s really playing soccer. That Sessions met with Kislyak doesn’t prove that anything nefarious happened or that the Trump campaign was complicit in Russian interference in the election. But an old photo of Schumer and Putin eating doughnuts doesn’t prove that everything’s copacetic, either.