We are entering into a politically charged environment where ordinary interactions between senior government officials and their foreign counterparts can quickly become toxic.
Incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn did nothing wrong when he spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. It is just as evident that Sen. Jeff Sessions did nothing wrong when he spoke twice to the same gentleman in the context of his membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The first Sessions meeting in June was part of a conference organized by the State Department and the Heritage Foundation that included 50 ambassadors. Sessions was the keynote speaker and was approached by some of the ambassadors afterwards, including the Russian envoy.
The second meeting in September took place in Sessions’s office. There were staffers present at the meeting, which was held in a Senate building because Sessions had turned down a request by the ambassador for a private lunch, which he considered inappropriate. No one is claiming that anything discussed at either meeting was in any way incriminating or damaging to national security. According to Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, FBI investigators have reportedly gone farther than that, having already indicated to the House and Senate intelligence committees that there is “no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.” That conclusion has, however, been challenged by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who countered that the investigation is still in its initial stages.
Flynn was forced to step down after a campaign of vilification orchestrated by some senior officials at CIA and NSA, possibly acting on behalf of the outgoing Obama administration, though the actual issue that led to his resignation was a reported failure to be completely honest with Vice President Mike Pence regarding his phone calls with Kislyak. Whether that was an oversight or deliberate remains to be determined, but the Trump administration clearly decided that it was not a fight worth engaging in given the superheated media coverage that it produced.
The Sessions story is somewhat different, though it too includes hysterical reactions from the media and also from some leading Democrats. The controversy surrounding Sessions is based on a single question asked by Sen. Al Franken, “If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
Sessions responded that he was “not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
Explanations of what Sessions did or not mean have generally taken two approaches. If you believe Sessions was discussing how Moscow might help defeat Hillary, was he was hiding something nefarious? Or, if you believe he was innocent, was he honestly responding to Franken’s apparent focus on contact with Russians as an element in the campaign?
As I believe the entire narrative seeking to portray the Trump victory as some kind of Manchurian-candidate scheme concocted by the Kremlin is complete nonsense, I tend to believe Sessions was answering honestly, after interpreting the question in a certain fashion. His spokesman has described the exchange as: “He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign—not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee.”
It is important to note that Sessions was not part of the Trump campaign staff, which explains his answer to Senator Franken. It would have been nice if he had begun his response to by noting that he has had intermittent interaction with Russian officials as part of his responsibilities in the Senate and then gone on to state that there had been no such contact that he was aware of as part of the campaign. But he did not do that, which has opened the door to the current politically-motivated firestorm.
What is particularly disturbing about the attack on Sessions is the hypocrisy evidenced by congressmen like Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, who are demanding that the attorney general resign because they claim he committed perjury. Answering questions in such a way as to avoid saying too much is a fine art in Washington—a skill that both Schumer and Pelosi have themselves also developed—but it does not amount to perjury. Sessions’s answer to Franken is not completely clear, but it is not an out-and-out lie. In that respect the attack on Sessions is like the attack on Flynn, basically a way of getting at and weakening President Donald Trump by opportunistically discrediting his high-level appointments.
That Sessions has now recused himself from anything having to do with Russia may be politically advisable, at least in part, to quell the outrage in the media and among nearly all Democrats and the usual caballero Republicans. But the original demands were inappropriate, as no one has demonstrated that Sessions has in some way worked with a foreign power to damage the national security of the United States. He is being tried by innuendo and in the cooperative media.
And then there is the even more disturbing Russian aspect to all of this. Sessions’s staff noted that as a senior senator on the Armed Services Committee, he met with 25 ambassadors. Why aren’t Schumer and Pelosi asking for a list of all those contacts? Ambassadors are doing their jobs when they represent their nations’ interests, which include working against some U.S. policies and trying to get foreign officials to reveal sensitive information “off the record.” Russia does indeed do that, but so do many countries that are regarded as close friends.
Russia is yet again being singled out for political reasons, even though Moscow and Washington are not at war. The evidence that Vladimir Putin has been somehow interfering in U.S. politics is definitely on the thin side and apparently not about to get any better. And fooling with Russia can be dangerous as it is the only country on earth that can destroy the United States. Nevertheless, in spite of that, there are many in the Democratic Party and the media who would like to make Russia something like a permanent enemy, to sustain the warfare state while also having a punching bag that can be blamed for whatever else might be going wrong.
One might reasonably consider the attacks on Sessions to be less about him and more about both Trump himself and Russia. Indeed, Trump and Russia are conjoined as the impending investigation into Moscow’s possible role in the election is also by its very nature a way to begin a process that would reverse the Trump electoral victory. Implicating yet another senior government official as a possible Kremlin patsy—and pressing ahead with a broader, bipartisan inquiry into the alleged subversion of the Trump campaign by Moscow—will narrow the president’s options for any reset with Russia while weakening his administration.
I note that President Trump has appointed hardliner Fiona Hill as his point person for dealing with Russia on the National Security Council. It is a bad move and possibly a sign that the relentless pressure regarding Moscow is beginning to bear fruit, forcing Trump to backtrack on his campaign promises to seek a reset with Putin.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.