It had all the makings of a major scandal: Russian agents, lies to Congress, and the hint of corruption that could bring down an entire presidential administration.
Only it wasn't anything even remotely close.
When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from any potential investigation into the Donald Trump campaign--not because he was compromised by the Russians, but because he had been a campaign surrogate--he threw several gallons of cold water on a non-existent White House fire.
All day, the press had been fanning the flames of intrigue over whether Sessions had in fact perjured himself by lying to a Senate committee during his confirmation hearing. Interestingly, though, very few outlets ran the full question to Sessions from Democratic Senator Al Franken, and with good reason: The context of the question makes it clear that Sessions was not lying in his answer.
Franken: "CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, ‘Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.’ These documents also allegedly say quote, ‘There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.’
"Now, again, I'm telling you this as it's coming out, so you know. But if it's true, it's obviously extremely serious and 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: "Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn't have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it."
The question was very specific: Did Sessions or anyone else associated with the Trump campaign have any communication with the Russian government in the course of this campaign?
Sessions did not. He had a meeting with Russia's ambassador to the United States on September 8th and over the summer took part in a Heritage Foundation event in which he spoke briefly with that ambassador, but in both of those instances, he was acting properly in his role as a United States Senator on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
There has never been any evidence offered that in either of these "meetings" (and it is a stretch to call the Heritage event a meeting per se), anything even remotely connected to the 2016 presidential election was discussed. In fact, both of these interactions were witnessed by several other people, none of whom have come forward to say that Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak discussed anything other than U.S.-Russian relations.
The context of Franken's question is key here: He wanted to know whether Sessions had met with anyone from the Russian government with the express purpose of influencing the presidential campaign in any way. There is simply no evidence that Sessions did.
Likewise, Sessions' one-word response to a questionnaire from Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy which followed Sessions' confirmation hearing is completely truthful.
Once again, the question specifically asked Sessions if he had any contact with anyone connected to the Russian government about the 2016 election. The question did not ask about any contact with the Russian government. It asked about contact with the Russian government that focused on issues of the 2016 presidential election.
Sessions did not have any.
In order to commit federal perjury under the relevant statutes, 18 U.S. Code § 1621 and 18 U.S. Code § 1001, one must make a statement under oath that "willfully and contrary to such oath states or subscribes any material matter which he does not believe to be true" and, in the case of an official government hearing (like a Senate confirmation hearing), that false statement must be made "knowingly and willfully."
This means that for Sessions to have perjured himself in his hearing, he had to have made a statement to Franken that he knew was false.
He didn't. He admitted in his press conference that he did not remember the exact nature of his discussions with Kislyak, but the timing of the meeting indicates that it was about the Russian invasion of Crimea, not the 2016 election. The day before, September 7th, Sessions had met with the Ukrainian ambassador to discuss that very issue. It is almost certain that Kislyak called for and received a meeting the next day to discuss the Russian position on the issue since Sessions had just heard the Ukrainian position.
These meetings are entirely normal for a member of the Senate Armed Services committee, and Sessions had upwards of 30 of them between April and the November election.
He only met with Russia's ambassador once. Does that honestly sound like part of a nefarious plot to steal an election or a Russian diplomat trying to present his case on Crimea to a U.S. Senator the day after the Ukrainian ambassador got to present his?
Democrats have spent the day trying to claim that this meeting was somehow unprecedented, and Senator Claire McCaskill tried to claim that she had never in all her years on the Armed Services Committee met with a Russian government official.
I've been on the Armed Services Com for 10 years.No call or meeting w/Russian ambassador. Ever. Ambassadors call members of Foreign Rel Com.— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) March 2, 2017
Only she did. Twice. And she tweeted about it. Twice.
Off to meeting w/Russian Ambassador. Upset about the arbitrary/cruel decision to end all US adoptions,even those in process.— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) January 30, 2013
Today calls with British, Russian, and German Ambassadors re: Iran deal. #doingmyhomework— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) August 6, 2015
Either McCaskill was lying about never meeting with a Russian official or she simply forgot that she had, which would tend to bolster Sessions' contention that these sorts of meetings are so routine for members of the Armed Services Committee that they are quite forgettable.
In either case, McCaskill unwittingly revealed the faux outrage and rank partisanship behind the Democratic effort to get Sessions to resign over this flap. As Democrats fanned the flames of controversy, they thought they were cooking up a scandal big enough to take down an Attorney General, but instead they now find themselves eating a big, juicy nothing-burger.