Attorney General Jeff Sessions's defense for failing to disclose two campaign-year meetings with a Russian diplomat comes down to a critical distinction: At times during the presidential race, he acted as a surrogate for Donald Trump. At other times, he acted as a U.S. senator.
The roles were separate, he insists, which is why a statement he made during a confirmation hearing in January — “I did not have communications with the Russians” — should not be viewed as dishonest.
“I was responding to this allegation that we had met — surrogates had been meeting with Russians on a regular basis,” Sessions said Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It simply did not occur to me to go further than the context of the question and to list any conversations that I may have had with Russians in routine situations” as a senator.
Sessions spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, said essentially the same thing in March: “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.”
Got that, everyone? There was a bright line between Senator Sessions and Surrogate Sessions. Surrogate Sessions “did not have communications with the Russians.” Senator Sessions did.
Why can't people see the clear division?
Maybe because Attorney General Sessions can't see it, either.
During Thursday's hearing, Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asked about an April 2016 campaign event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where Trump delivered a foreign policy speech. The event is significant because both Sessions and Sergey Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States, attended.
Multiple news outlets reported last week that former FBI director James B. Comey told committee members in a closed session that Sessions and Kislyak might have spoken at that event, too.
Sessions testified on Thursday that he does not recall whether he talked to Kislyak that day. In any case, Burr wanted to know which hat Sessions was wearing when he attended the speech.
BURR: Would you say that you were there as a United States senator or as a surrogate of the campaign for this event?
SESSION: I came there as an interested person, very anxious to see how President Trump would do in his first major foreign policy address. I believe he'd only given one major speech before. That was maybe at the Jewish AIPAC event. So, it was an interesting time for me to observe his delivery and the message he would make. That was my main purpose of being there.
What happened to the bright line? Sessions couldn't or wouldn't say whether he was acting as a surrogate or a senator. That's a problem because, according to him, it makes all the difference.
Let's apply his own standard: If Senator Sessions talked to Kislyak, then his statement in January was truthful. If Surrogate Sessions talked to Kislyak, then it was not.
It is hard for Attorney General Sessions to argue that others should distinguish between his dual roles during the campaign if he can't do the same.