It took minutes, not hours, for top congressional Democrats to call on Trump's Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign on Wednesday evening after the WaPo reported that he had allegedly met with the Russian ambassador in the months before the election, meetings that Sessions did not disclose during his confirmation hearings.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led the effort late on Wednesday night, accusing Sessions of "lying under oath" during confirmation proceedings about his contacts with the Russians.
"Jeff Sessions lied under oath during his confirmation hearing before the Senate. Under penalty of perjury, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, 'I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.' We now know that statement is false," Pelosi said in a statement. She then added that "The Attorney General must resign. There must be an independent, bipartisan, outside commission to investigate the Trump political, personal and financial connections to the Russians.”
JUST IN: PELOSI -- Calls on Attorney General Sessions to Resign pic.twitter.com/vKBTkRWxqQ— Frank Thorp V (@frankthorp) March 2, 2017
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House oversight committee, also called on Sessions to resign, as did Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Richard Painter, the former White House ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007, also blasted Sessions and in a statement on Twitter said that "misleading the Senate in sworn testimony about one own contacts with the Russians is a good way to go to jail."
Responding to the WaPo report, in a statement issued early on Thursday morning, Sessions said, "I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false."
To be sure, there is some verbal semantics in play: the WaPo's core allegation is that Sessions did not disclose his meeting with the Russian ambassador Kislyak - which took place in July and September, the second meeting reportedly occurred in Sessions' Senate office - to the Senate when he was asked about "possible contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow." Sessions’s spokesperson at the Department of Justice, Sarah Isgur Flores, says his answer in January was truthful because he was asked about “the Trump campaign, not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee." She added that "there was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer," during the confirmation process, noting that he had over 25 conversations with ambassadors as a member of the Armed Services Committee.
According to the Wednesday Post story, Sessions’ conversations with Kislyak took place in July and September. The second meeting reportedly occurred in Sessions' Senate office. Sessions did not disclose those discussions during his January confirmation hearing in response to a question.
The Post does not provide the full transcript of the question, from Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), and Sessions’s answer. Instead it summarizes the exchange in a way that makes it seem that Sessions was asked if there was any contact at all between the campaign and representatives of the Russian government. What Sessions was asked about was sustained, ongoing communications, a core accusation in the dubious Trump “dossier.”
The C-Span transcript of the meeting is as follows:
Franken: CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week, that included information that “Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” These documents also allegedly say “there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.” 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 did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.
Franken: Very well.
Of note: Sessions was not actually asked whether he or anyone affiliated with the campaign had any kind of communication with the Russians, ever. He was asked, first, about “a continuing exchange of information” — repeated contacts between the campaign and representatives of the Russian government. In the full context of Franken’s remarks, Sessions was asked about the allegations in the dossier, and he denied such “communications” to the extent of his ability to do so.
Additionally, the WaPo adds that Sessions was asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) whether he had “been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day." Sessions answered, simply, “no.” And there is no evidence in the Post nor elsewhere to cast doubt on that claim.
In any case, semantics, and for now Democrats are happy to use this line of attack in hopes of repeating a Michael Flynn outcome, and oust Sessions.
As Politico adds, it wasn't just Democrats amping up the pressure. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said a special prosecutor should be appointed if investigators find any evidence of wrongdoing by the Trump campaign, adding that Sessions should recuse himself from any investigation into contacts between the campaign and Russia.
"I don't know that there's anything between the Trump campaign and the Russians. I'm not going to base my decision based on newspaper articles," Graham (R-S.C.) said during a CNN town hall where he appeared with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "If there is something there, and it goes up the chain of investigation, it is clear to me that Jeff Sessions, who is my dear friend, cannot make this decision about Trump."
An Obama White House national security official said the administration was gravely concerned in its final days about increasingly apparent ties between Trump associates and Russians, and about what appeared to be promises made by more than one individual to representatives of Russian President Vladimir Putin about policy changes that would occur once Trump was sworn in as president. The senior Obama White House official was not told the names of the specific individuals involved because the official’s portfolio was foreign policy, not intelligence, so they were not briefed on aspects of the investigation involving U.S. persons.
“It seems pretty clear that [former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn] was not a rogue here,” the senior official said. “I don’t believe that Flynn was the only person promising things to the Russians, communicating to them what would happen once the Trump administration came in.”
For now Trump has not gotten himself involved in this latest spat, which could potentially escalate into the resignation of a second key aide to the Trump Administration. Instead, first thing this morning Trump decided to once again highlight the recent market performance, the same market which he previously called a "huge bubble" as confirmation he is doing a good job as president: "Since November 8th, Election Day, the Stock Market has posted $3.2 trillion in GAINS and consumer confidence is at a 15 year high. Jobs!"
Since November 8th, Election Day, the Stock Market has posted $3.2 trillion in GAINS and consumer confidence is at a 15 year high. Jobs!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 2, 2017
Sooner or later, we expect Trump to make an angry statement on the issue, and with that the "conciliatory" Trump that emerged during his Congressional Address will be once again dead and buried.