Sunday, September 23, 2018
Opinion

Column: White House amateur hour

Jeff Sessions is a lawyer. He is the nation's top law enforcement officer. He has been a state attorney general and United States attorney, too.

All of which makes his now-contradicted denials of contact with the Russians completely inexplicable. How could a man who is supposed to be so studied at the law take the stand ... under oath ... at a confirmation hearing ... and not be precise with his words?

The big question is whether that's due to actual malice or gross incompetence. And neither is a good option.

The Washington Post reported on Sessions' previously undisclosed meetings with Russia's ambassador to the United States. Although Sessions now denies talking about the campaign with the Russian ambassador, at his confirmation hearing he denied contact with the Russian government, period.

But what stings even more is that he actually volunteered that denial. He wasn't even asked to provide it.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked Sessions: "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?"

That was the question that elicited the denial that now haunts Sessions. And in response, he issued a blanket statement — with no qualifier that he was referring only to campaign business, as Sessions' denials Thursday suggest.

"Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities," Sessions said. "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I didn't have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it."

Any lawyer — nay, any politician — will tell you that if you aren't asked to commit to a position, you shouldn't volunteer one. Making declarative statements about what you've done or what you believe are only fodder for future contradictions and attacks. And when you aren't absolutely sure or are worried you might be forgetting something, you may say something like "I don't recall XYZ" or "to the best of my recollection."

Sessions did none of this — even though his meeting with Russia's ambassador was just four months prior in his Senate office and he also met with the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in July near the Republican National Convention.

All of which brings me back to a theory I've discussed a couple times previously: Adam Carolla's "Stupid or Liar."

You can make a case that Franken's question at the confirmation hearing primed Sessions to be thinking in a campaign frame of mind. Let's grant this premise, for the sake of argument. But then Sessions — who again is a lawyer and is familiar with what it means to be under oath and perjure oneself — proceeds to say flatly that he "did not have communications with the Russians."

Even if you were trying to conceal something nefarious in those meetings with Russians, you would deny it in a much more careful way — one that provides wiggle room later on and more plausible deniability. Sessions' statement is pretty flatly contradicted; whether it's actual perjury is to be determined.

It all recalls the eerily similar Michael Flynn saga. When the Washington Post presented the top Trump national security aide with evidence that he had discussed sanctions on Russia with Kislyak on a late December phone call — possibly in violation of the law — Flynn denied it. Twenty four hours later, he said he couldn't remember having discussed such a thing. Then, after it was revealed that he told the same thing to the FBI — again in apparent risk of committing perjury — Flynn explained that he spoke about the expulsion of Russian operatives from the United States, which he didn't consider part of the sanctions but were, in fact, part of the sanctions.

So here we had Flynn, a seasoned intelligence operative who is more than familiar with international relations and carefully parsing information, making a series of completely careless statements and denials — at best. This was the man President Donald Trump picked as his national security adviser, and Flynn's argument was that he basically didn't understand the definition of "sanctions."

There is plenty in common between the Sessions and Flynn situations. But the unifying link is that we have someone at the highest levels of the Trump administration who committed an egregious error that someone in their position and with their alleged expertise should know better than to have done.

Critics will be certain there is something nefarious going on — that the Flynn and Sessions situations are smoking guns that prove ties to Russia are being covered up. Investigations will ideally determine the extent that this is true, if at all.

But regardless, all of this suggests this is amateur hour, plain and simple.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for a blog at the Washington Post called The Fix. © 2017 Washington Post

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