On Tuesday (June 13), Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of a US administration that has argued for the existence of “alternative facts,” swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He then spent two hours spinning a web of contradictions, selective omissions, and vague recollections. Whether these officially constitute lies—and whether Sessions is a perjurer—is an issue best determined by legal experts. But the fact that the country’s highest-ranking legal official seems to have such a fuzzy relationship with his facts does not bode well for the integrity of the whole truth under president Donald Trump.
This most recent Senate hearing merely reinforced concerns that Sessions and Trump are taking advantage of their positions to protect each other from repercussions for ostensibly illegal actions, like omitting information on a security clearance form (as Sessions did) or Trump’s many misdeeds. Sworn to uphold the law, Sessions and Trump instead seem to be operating as if they are above it. They are unafraid to demonstrate that their primary interest lies in serving and protecting each other, not the Constitution or the public’s best interests.
Consider Trump’s recent firing of former FBI director James Comey. Sessions signed off on getting rid of Comey, who was investigating the relationship between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign at the time. This means that Comey was ostensibly investigating Sessions—who had met several times with Russian diplomats in the months surrounding the inauguration—at the time of his dismissal. (In fact, Sessions had recused himself from the Russian meddling probe after failing to properly disclose his ties.)
That Sessions signed off on Comey’s firing after this recusal is a worrying development. The DOJ is supposed to check abuse of power in the executive branch, not enable it.
Shortly before Comey’s testimony last week, a highly dubious story appeared in major news outlets, starting with the New York Times, alerting us of a “feud’ between Trump and Sessions. It followed the standard pattern of palace intrigue stories, which in recent months have warned of the impending firings of Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, and Sebastian Gorka—none of which have yet to pan out in reality. The purpose of this propaganda, standard in autocracies, is to give the illusion of internal dissent instead of autocratic consolidation. This way, if something damning about Sessions were to be revealed in Comey’s testimony, the administration could fabricate a sense of distance between Trump and Sessions in advance.
As it happens, Comey did not disappoint. He described how he had asked Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump and argued that Sessions was aware of the scope of his concerns about Trump and had failed to protect the FBI from White House influence.
Sessions’ involvement in Comey’s investigation—and ultimate firing—is concerning enough. But the broader context of Sessions’ relationship with Trump and the Kremlin scandal is even more damning. Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump, holding a rally for him in August 2015, though he was not officially involved with the campaign until March 2016. Sessions’ appointment to the Trump campaign’s national security board seemed a strange role for the Alabama senator, a long-time opponent of civil rights who focused primarily on domestic affairs but had very little involvement in foreign policy. Nevertheless, under the guidance of Paul Manafort—Trump’s campaign manager, who had long worked in the service of Russian oligarchs—Sessions suddenly began meeting with lobbyists who would become tied to the Russian interference scandal as well as with, notoriously, ambassador Kisylak.
In other words, Sessions was deeply immersed in the Trump campaign and its Russian connections from the beginning. Yet strangely, most of the details of his involvement slipped his mind in front of the Senate select committee on intelligence. Instead, Sessions declared he opposed Russian interference, but also said he was unaware of it. He said he never read the news—then cited a New York Times article to defend a point. He complained about leaks—but also claimed he had no familiarity with the leaked information. He said he had heard of no one in the Trump campaign being connected to the Kremlin in 2016—yet he worked under Manafort, whose Kremlin ties are deep and long. Sessions also worked alongside Carter Page, another suspected Russian agent, throughout 2016.
Perhaps most alarmingly, Sessions declared that he had never once been briefed on Russian interference during his tenure as attorney general. This is horrifying whether it is true or not. Either Sessions knows a great deal about Russian interference, or he does not seem to care enough about threats to US sovereignty to learn about it. Both of these scenarios indicate an abdication of responsibility in his role as attorney general.
Sessions’s excuses mirror in many ways thoseapplied to Trump: that our nation’s president is either too inept or too inexperienced to have been complicit in Russian interference. Neither of these scenarios bode well for the security and integrity of the United States. They indicate, at best, profound indifference to a foreign threat, and at worst, a willingness to abet it. Given the administration’s continued efforts to obstruct the investigation, however, the latter is looking more and more likely.
In his hearing, Sessions put the “palace intrigue” fables planted by the press to bed. His deepest loyalties were revealed to lie not with the Constitution or the duties of his office, but with protecting Trump. He casually dismissed Comey’s firing—an event which culminated in Trump essentially admitting to obstruction of justice on television—as nothing more than the need for a “fresh start.” The bottom line of his testimony is that officials in this administration do not feel the need to explain their actions or bother with the pretense of legitimate excuses. They are unconcerned about accountability or repercussions.
On Tuesday, senators spoke truth to power. But Sessions let them know that in Trump’s version of America, power is the only truth.
Correction (6/15/17): This piece has been updated to clarify that the attorney general is part of the executive branch, not the judicial branch.
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