One occupational hazard of political blogging is that you will shut your lights off at night with a good idea in your head about what you’re going to write about in the morning only to discover at dawn that someone has done an adequate job of it while you were sleeping. In this case, I was victimized by Marcy Wheeler and her piece: Jeff Sessions Unforgets the Discussions with Russians He Twice Swore He Didn’t Know About.
I had noticed more than one article last night that cited people in the Trump administration or its close orbit who attended a March 31, 2016 meeting at the Trump Hotel in Washington in which George Papadopoulos raised the prospect of a personal meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin. These sources were admitting that Papadopoulos made the pitch, but insisting that Jeff Sessions eventually cut him off, said it was a bad idea, and requested that the topic not be brought up again.
Here’s the New York Times’s version:
Mr. Clovis and others immediately expressed doubts about the wisdom of the idea, noting that Russia was under United States sanctions and denouncing the “optics” of a meeting with Mr. Putin, according to a former campaign aide who attended the meeting.
But Mr. Trump listened with interest and asked questions of Mr. Papadopoulos. Mr. Trump “didn’t say yes, and he didn’t say no,” said the former aide, who agreed to describe the meeting on the condition of anonymity.
Finally, Mr. Sessions, as the campaign’s top national security official, spoke vehemently against the idea, asking others not to discuss it again. Mr. Trump did not challenge him, the former aide said.
Here is the version provided by CNN:
Candidate Donald Trump did not dismiss the idea of arranging a meeting with Russia’s president when it was suggested in a meeting with his campaign foreign policy advisers last year, according to a person in the room.
The idea was raised by George Papadopoulos as he introduced himself at a March 2016 meeting of the Republican candidate’s foreign policy advisers, according to a court filing.
“He didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no,” the official said, declining to be more specific about Trump’s response to Papadopoulos.
But the chairman of Trump’s national security team, then Alabama senator and now attorney general Jeff Sessions, shut down the idea of a Putin meeting at the March 31, 2016, gathering, according to the source. His reaction was confirmed with another source who had discussed Session’s role.
Obviously, Marcy noticed the same thing as I did and beat me to the punch of spelling out why this, if true, is the clearest evidence yet that Jeff Sessions perjured himself under questioning from Congress.
The totality of Sessions’s Senate testimony, both at his confirmation hearing and subsequently, is highly dubious on this point. But his clearest perjurious statement came on October 18th, when Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota asked a very specific question: “You don’t believe that surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians?”
Sessions responded, “I did not — and I’m not aware of anyone else that did. I don’t believe that it happened.”
Marcy points out that two weeks prior to this testimony, the Justice Department that Sessions heads had obtained a guilty plea from Papadopoulos who can only be described as a campaign surrogate. In fairness, Sessions has recused himself from that investigation and so should not have been aware of the fact that Papadopoulos had copped a plea and openly admitted to having communications with the Russians, including a person who was represented to him as a relative of Vladimir Putin.
On the other hand, if he had been aware of what Mueller knew about the March 31st meeting, he might not have felt free to lie so brazenly about it to Sen. Franken.
The only defense here is that Sessions forgot all about the meeting, but now we are given the story that Sessions “spoke vehemently against the idea” of a meeting between Trump and Putin and asked the other attendees “not to discuss it again.”
And I guess I should be clear that Papadopoulos was explicit that he had made contact with a representative of Putin’s and that his idea for a meeting was more than hypothetical.
In late March last year, Mr. Papadopoulos emailed Mr. [Sam] Clovis and others that he had discussed with his contacts — a London-based professor with Moscow ties and a Russian woman whom he described as a relative of Mr. Putin’s — the possibility of a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russia’s leadership.
“Great work,” Mr. Clovis responded, according to the court documents and interviews.
At the meeting, Papadopoulos was pitching this exact point. But Sessions testified that he was not aware that “surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians” and that he did not believe that any of them did.
Prior to now, most of the focus has been on the fact that Sessions was himself a surrogate of the campaign and that he had failed to disclose three separate meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kisylak. But we now have a further example of the attorney general’s forgetfulness.
What’s amazing about this is that someone in the Trump administration is pitching this clear evidence of Sessions’s perjury as an alibi against what seems like proof of collusion. The “vehement” opposition to a meeting with Putin that Sessions allegedly expressed makes it much harder to argue that he had no recollection of surrogates talking to the Russians. And they’re hardly doing the president a huge favor in portraying him as open to the idea. Who are they trying to protect?
Perhaps this is a limited hang-out, where the plausibility of the claim is enhanced precisely because an unhelpful confession is included. The president isn’t innocent of poor judgment, but he didn’t ultimately authorize or attend a meeting. This would be my guess at what we’re seeing here.
But, in that case, it could have been done using someone other than Sessions as the person who shot it down. After all, as far as I know, none of the other participants would be exposed to legal charges for playing that role since none of them testified under oath that they had no knowledge of any communications with the Russians.
As for Sam Clovis, he’s now testified to the grand jury, and no doubt this meeting was a major topic of their discussion. That may explain why the sources for Sessions’s role are all anonymous. Going on the record could land someone in front of the same grand jury and that’s not a place where you want to spin fables.
To me, it’s plausible that Sessions didn’t object at all and that this is just a way for the Trump administration to explain away damaging information. But whoever decided to advance this story, whether it is true or not, clearly didn’t think through the implications for the attorney general.
The next time Sessions has to testify before the Senate, he’s going to be in an impossible position.