Jeff Sessions
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Richard W. Painter, who served as the Bush administration’s chief White House ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007, was pretty quick to put together a little opinion piece for the New York Times after news broke last night that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied during his confirmation hearing.

He wants us to know that this has happened before and that it had very specific consequences:

In 1972 Richard G. Kleindienst, the acting attorney general, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a confirmation hearing on his nomination by President Richard Nixon to be attorney general. He was to replace Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who had resigned in disgrace and would later be sent to prison in the Watergate scandal.

Several Democratic senators were concerned about rumors of White House interference in a Justice Department antitrust suit against International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, a campaign contributor to the Republican National Committee. They asked Kleindienst several times if he had ever spoken with anyone at the White House about the I.T.T. case. He said he had not.

That wasn’t true. Later, after Kleindienst was confirmed as attorney general, the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and his team uncovered an Oval Office tape recording of a phone call in which Nixon told Kleindiesnt to drop the I.T.T. case. Kleindienst claimed that he thought the senators’ questions were limited to a particular period, not the entire time during which the case was pending.

Jaworski didn’t buy it. He filed criminal charges against Kleindienst, who was forced to resign as attorney general. Eventually Kleindienst pleaded guilty to failure to provide accurate information to Congress, a misdemeanor, for conduct that many observers believed amounted to perjury. He was also reprimanded by the Arizona State Bar.

There’s a whole lot more history that’s only hinted at in that retelling, especially around the I.T.T. case. But we don’t need to get into all of that.

What matters is that Kleindienst lied under oath during his confirmation hearing and the punishment included his resignation, a misdemeanor charge, and a reprimand from the bar association. Most people thought he got off too easy.

Painter seems to agree, and he also thinks what Sessions did is more serious:

And this time, unlike in 1972, the attorney general’s misleading testimony involves communications not with the president of the United States, but with a rival nuclear superpower. In 1972, any federal employee who provided such inaccurate information under oath about communications with the Russians would have been fired and had his or her security clearances revoked immediately, and probably also would have been criminally prosecuted.

The Cold War may be over, but Russia in the past few years has once again sought to destabilize the democratic process not only in the United States, but also in much of Europe. Russian support for Communist parties is gone, but Russian support for far right and nationalist movements globally is on the rise, as is Russian spying.

President Trump has already fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for misleading Vice President Pence about his conversations with the Russians. Misleading the United States Senate in testimony under oath is at least as serious. We do not yet know all the facts, but we know enough to see that Attorney General Sessions has to go as well.

In my experience, the intelligence-stovepiping, torturing Bush administration wasn’t known for being a stickler for ethics, nor for going after fellow Republicans when they fell short of exemplary public service. Maybe the extended Bush clan isn’t as “low energy” as Trump claimed.

In any case, they’re calling for blood now, but it doesn’t seem like a vendetta to me as much as a correct interpretation of history and the law.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at