Thus far, I've not seen an analysis of the Jeff Sessions matter that gets it quite right. Here is my attempt.
During his recent Senate confirmation hearings, then-Senator Sessions's response to Sen. Al Franken was not as complete as it should have been. To begin, meetings between senators and diplomatic officials are common. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill immediately attacked Sessions on Twitter:
I've been on the Armed Services Com for 10 years.No call or meeting w/Russian ambassador. Ever. Ambassadors call members of Foreign Rel Com.
She was quickly shown to have done exactly that – from her own prior tweets:
Off to meeting w/Russian Ambassador. Upset about the arbitrary/cruel decision to end all US adoptions, even those in process.
Today calls with British, Russian, and German Ambassadors re: Iran deal. #doingmyhomework
Likewise, we know that Rep. Nancy Pelosi has similarly "lied" when asked if she had ever met with the Russian ambassador. The point is, there is nothing improper or uncommon about such meetings – though apparently it is common to say they never occurred.
Here is the full question to Senator Sessions from Sen. Franken:
CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, 'Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.' These documents also allegedly say quote, 'There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.'Now, again, I'm telling you this as it's coming out, so 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?
Let's parse this.
Franken started with a recitation about the just surfaced documents containing outrageous allegations regarding Russian possession of Trump's personal and financial information. Franken continued, indicating that the documents alleged a "continuing exchange of information" between the Russians and the Trump campaign, with the obvious implication that Trump's "surrogates" would be actively working to silence these allegations, creating great indebtedness to the Russians.
That was the topic – collusion to silence wild allegations – and frankly, I believe that is all Franken was asking about. Importantly, however, the way he later posed the question allows the belief that he was asking about a much broader topic – to wit:
Now, again...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?
You can see that there are really two divergent parts of a single question. Had that last "now, again" been the only question asked, from a blank slate, we have a different conversation. But that's not what happened, and in fact there were two parts:
- Did Trump surrogates have "continuing exchanges" regarding compromising personal and financial information?
- What would you do about anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicating during the campaign with the Russians?
Note how the subject of Part 2 is subtly adrift from the topic of Part 1. Taken by itself, it's reasonable to think Part 2 is not limited to Part 1. But the question was not asked by itself. It was asked as a continuation of Part 1. And the answer by Sessions was:
Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. 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.
Do we really think Franken was asking about the type of meetings that senators such as Pelosi, McCaskill, et al. have as part of their normal duties? Or do we think Franken was asking Sessions if he had knowledge of any meetings regarding and resulting from the highly salacious allegation of personal and financial information?
Why, after all, would Sessions seek to hide the type of meetings that are so common by Senators and those in such places? It would indeed be foolish to try (hence the interesting denials of McCaskill and Pelosi, given the ease of their unmasking).
Let me be clear: there is nothing at all wrong with Sen. Franken wanting answers about these things. Nor do I think he intentionally asked the question in a misleading way. Watching the video of the event makes this evident. Indeed, Franken even seemed to offer some condolence to Sessions and surprise himself for needing to ask.
Next, let me iterate that Sessions did not answer the multifaceted question with the precision that we ought to expect of our nation's top lawyer. He has admitted as much. It is a surprising gaffe from a bright attorney. And it's also likely the type of intellectual compartmentalization that allowed Bill Clinton to confidently (and I presume honestly in his mind) state that he did not inhale or had sex with that woman.
I'm not making excuses for Sessions. He should have taken more care in his answer. But perjury this is not.