Back in early March, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions first recused himself from the Russia investigation, I noted that it was an example of something that is peculiar to big political scandals. Certainly at the start, it is all but impossible to judge their full scope and detail. We don’t know enough. But often we can infer the depth and scope of big scandals by the intensity of the gravitation that surrounds them.
That was my first thought when Sessions meetings and recusal hit the news in early March. I have a very low view of Jeff Sessions. But it never occurred to me he was tied up, even in the sense of possibly inconsequential meetings, with the Russia story.
Now we have more. Possibly a lot more. Let’s take a moment to go through it.
Yesterday afternoon the Justice Department sent out a statement from Sessions announcing that he would be meeting Tuesday with the Senate intelligence committee to discuss issues raised by James Comey last Thursday. Sessions had been scheduled to testify before the relevant House and Senate appropriations subcommittees about next year’s budget – a mundane and routine part of regular congressional oversight. But Senators had alerted Sessions that they would use the opportunity to ask about issues raised in Comey’s testimony. The Committee at some point between Thursday and Saturday asked for Sessions to return to speak to them. Sessions announced that he would send Rod Rosenstein to discuss the budget in his stead and testify – it now turns out in closed session – before the intelligence committee.
Congress has a fair degree of latitude in arranging its hearing schedule in such high profile cases. I see little to no reason why Sessions had to choose between the two hearings. Though I do not believe the intel committee hearing was his idea or (in a broad sense) voluntary, Sessions appears to have used the intel committee hearing to avoid public testimony.
One observation before looking at what I believe is the critical backstory: At his confirmation hearings, Sessions said without prompting that he had never met with Russian officials during the campaign. (It was in response to Sen. Franken; but Franken hadn’t asked that specific question.) It later emerged that that was not true and Sessions was allowed to correct his testimony. He added the two meetings that had just been revealed in The Washington Post. But apparently he omitted at least one other meeting. In practice, perjury is a very high standard, especially for high profile congressional testimony. The assumption in such a case is that Sessions’ omission was an oversight – a bit hard to figure but not impossible. But you really only get two bites at that credibility apple. Sessions misinformed the committee, got a chance to correct the record but apparently again misinformed the committee. Again, I do not expect Sessions to be charged with perjury. But I do think many Senators, understandably and perhaps inevitably, will decide that he willfully deceived them.
What else can we say about this new development? For a variety of reasons I think this is a major part of the overall Russia story, or at least circumstances tied to its investigation and Comey deliberately pushed it into the record when the questions he was asked did not specifically require him to.
Let’s look at how this came to light. One might guess that it arose in the back and forth of Comey’s testimony. But a close read strongly suggests that is not the case. Comey seems to have quite intentionally revealed information that the Senators did not yet know and just as intentionally revealed the existence of that information to the public.
The new information about Sessions is first hinted at in Comey’s prepared testimony. In his team’s discussion of what to do and who to tell about Trump’s request to drop the Flynn investigation on February 14th, Comey writes: “We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.)”
There is some logic to including this information. Comey is saying that his team felt it did not make sense to inform Sessions in the role of his superior since they did not expect he would be in that position for long. Some sense, but not a lot. Comey also referenced not just investigations tied to the campaign, which might reasonably merit a recusal (and which Sessions claims as the reason for his recusal) but investigations tied to Russia. The obvious question arises: what did Comey’s team know two weeks prior to Sessions’ surprise recusal?
In his public testimony Comey went considerably further. Again, the key quote: “Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. So we were convinced — in fact, I think we’d already heard the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer. That turned out to be the case.
This involves some inference and speculation. But it seems clear to me that Comey was revealing things that were not at all necessary to answer the question at hand, much as he had in his prepared testimony. Comey noted that he knew in mid-February of classified information that would make Sessions involvement in a Russia related investigation “problematic.” It seems clear from subsequent events that this was information that the Senate Committee, or at least the full committee, was not then aware of.
There’s another additional point: There was a scheduled closed door session scheduled after the public hearing where Comey would be able to discuss classified information. Comey could have waited to raise this issue during that closed door hearing. But he seems to have taken it upon himself – beyond what the question required – to reference the existence of such classified information, though not the details themselves, to the public.
It’s possible that this was all by chance or in Comey’s mind just flowed from the logic of the question and answer. But I doubt it. Comey is careful and deliberate in his use of words. These details stand out because they come up in a way that seems beyond what answering the question required – considerably beyond. I think Comey did this to push this information both into the hands of the committee and also, in a more limited way, to the public.
Whatever the information is – and it seems to be at least an additional, undisclosed meeting – it generated an almost immediate committee request. What I take from all this is that the new information is not just a handshake and casual chat at a DC speech. It sounds like something that seriously compromises Sessions’ role with a Russia probe and that Comey felt it was important to get out. Remember that even though Sessions has nominally recused himself from the Russia probe he was party to the decision to fire Comey which Comey rather convincingly believes was the reason for his dismissal. That means that while he was nominally recused from any role in the investigation he played a major part in attempting to end it – he involved himself in the most dramatic and consequential way possible.
As I said at the top, most of the details of the Russia story we do not yet know. But we can infer its scope and depth from the gravity surrounding it. That gravity, with this new revelation about Sessions, seems far greater than it did when we first saw Sessions yanked under the waves in early March. Mysteries like these, new hidden information coming to the fore simply don’t happen when there’s not something big at the center of the story.
Editor’s note: This post has been revised to show that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will testify in Sessions’ place before the relevant House and Senate appropriations subcommittees, not the Judiciary committees.