The recently revealed guilty plea of a low-level volunteer on President Donald Trump’s campaign has renewed complaints by Democrats about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ honesty, and one congressman even accused him of committing a crime.
The issue stems from reports that Sessions, who was an adviser to Trump, shot down a proposal by George Papadopoulos to set up a meeting between the candidate and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty last month to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians.
The revelations have prompted accusations from Democrats that Sessions, too, lied.
“He’s perjured himself at least three times,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) told CNN on Friday.
Quigley said Sessions lied during his confirmation hearing about meeting with Russians even though he had met with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016. The second refers to an unproven allegation that Sessions met with the ambassador at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington after Trump delivered a foreign-policy speech.
Sessions has said he has no memory of meeting with Kislyak at the Mayflower. He has said his failure to mention the meeting with Kislyak in his office was not deceptive because the question asked about campaign activities and that the meeting was in his capacity as a senator.
The most recent allegations center on two different appearances in Congress earlier this year. Democrats claim Sessions denied hearing about any discussion regarding meetings with Russians and that Papadopoulos has refuted that.
But the attorney general’s defenders maintain that Sessions provided narrow and specific answers. During an appearance in June before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions argued that whether or not he had met with Kislyak, it had nothing to do with collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
“Let me state this clearly, colleagues: I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States,” he said. “Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations with anyone connected to the Trump campaign.”
Sessions did not claim that he had never heard any conversations during the campaign about Russia or the Russians — just that he had not heard any conversations “concerning any type of interference with any campaign.”
Last month, Sessions denied “improper discussions” with Russians during the campaign.
“Well, let me just say this without hesitation, that I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country,” he testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Once again, the answer concerned “improper discussions,” not any conversations at all.
“It is a literally correct answer, and there’s nothing wrong with it,” said Joseph diGenova, who served as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia under President Ronald Reagan. “The Democrats are looking for gnats.”
Ken Boehm, a former prosecutor who now serves as chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center for Policy, agreed.
“That sounds like pretty thin gruel,” he said. “Sessions has a reputation for being a pretty careful, pretty upstanding guy … I don’t see that as even close to the line, let alone over it.”
DiGenova said Democrats are conflating discussions about Putin and Russians with a criminal conspiracy involving the campaign. Despite more than a year of investigation, diGenova said, no evidence of such a conspiracy has emerged.
So instead, Democrats have moved the goal posts to include any mention of Russia, diGenova said.
“Everything that is alleged to have occurred is perfectly legal … Jeff Sessions didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
Some of the confusion may arise from the broad question that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked at last month’s hearing: “Did you ever overhear a conversation between you and anybody on the campaign who talked about meeting with the Russians?”
Based on the revelations surrounding Papadopolous, the answer to that question would appear to be “yes.” But Sessions chose to answer the question much more narrowly.
“I have not seen anything that would indicate a collusion with Russians to impact the campaign,” he said.
Sessions again spoke about whether or not he had seen collusion, not whether he was aware of other conversations about meetings with Russians.
Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara — no fan of Trump or Sessions — acknowledged that point on Thursday. He said Graham’s question and the attorney general’s answer were like “two ships passing in the night.”
He told CNN that this occurs regularly in congressional hearings, with “witnesses answering the question that they want to answer.”
Democrats are not satisfied, however.
“Jeff Sessions concealed his meetings with Russians, and he had an obligation to be more forthcoming with the meetings involving Papadopoulos as well,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told CNN’s Manu Raju.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) expressed frustration to CNN.
“It’s amazing how this amnesia lifts when there is documentation to contradict what these various officials have said under oath. So it’s troubling,” she said.