On 14th February 2017, in the aftermath of the resignation of General Flynn, The New York Times published a sensational story claiming on the basis of anonymous sources that there had been ‘multiple contacts’ between persons associated with Donald Trump and his campaign and individuals who the US intelligence community says are Russian intelligence agents.
We have now been provided – in the person of Attorney General Jeff Sessions – with the name of one of these persons, which enables us to see how absurd – and sinister – this story is.
Over the course of 2016 Sessions had two meetings with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador, who is now being referred to by CNN – on the strength of supposed information provided by our old friends the anonymous ‘current and retired intelligence officials’ – as “one of Russia’s top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington”.
That makes it a virtual certainty that Sessions is one of the persons referred to in The New York Times story. Indeed it is quite possible that the entire story was all along about him.
There was in fact nothing secret about either of Jeff Sessions’s meetings with the Russian ambassador, only one of which was held in private. It is not disputed that Sessions on both occasions met with the ambassador in his official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. There was nothing irregular about these meetings, Sessions insists that the Trump campaign was not discussed over the course of either of these meetings, and there is no reason to doubt his word.
It has been suggested that Sessions misled the Senate during his confirmation hearings by denying contacts with the Russians during the election campaign.
There are two occasions when this is supposed to have happened. The first was during a Senate hearing on 10th January 2017 when Sessions was asked how he would respond if he learned of communications between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials during the election. He replied as follows
I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians
(bold italics added)
The second occasion was in a response to a written question put to him in a questionnaire prepared by Senator Patrick Leahy. The question and Sessions’s answer read as follows
Several of the President-Elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?
(bold italics added)
It is clear that both questions concerned contacts with the Russians in relation to the election campaign and carried out on behalf of the Trump campaign. Sessions denied having contacts with the Russians in relation to the election campaign or on behalf of the Trump campaign. Since his meetings with the Russian ambassador did not concern the election campaign and were not undertaken on behalf of the Trump campaign Sessions told the Senate the truth.
It has been suggested that Sessions should have volunteered information about his two meetings with Kislyak even though these took place whilst he was working in an official capacity as a United States Senator and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and even though these meetings had nothing to do with the election campaign or the Trump campaign. Given the fevered atmosphere involving any contacts with Russians at all, however routine or innocuous they might be, perhaps it would have been better had he done so.
Having said this, since no one is disputing that the meetings took place as part of Sessions’s work as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, it is nothing short of bizarre as well as being frankly sinister that no less a person than a United States Senator is now being called upon to volunteer information about routine aspects of his work in order to avoid suspicion. This smacks more of a police state than a functioning democracy.
If the leaks which brought down General Flynn were the action that tipped the anti-Trump ‘Russia’ campaign into outright illegality, the allegations against Attorney General Jeff Sessions look to be the moment when any shadow of pretence that what we are looking at is anything other than a crazed witch-hunt has finally gone.
It is sometimes claimed by Senator McCarthy’s defenders that his campaign in the 1950s did actually expose Communist infiltrators in the US government. That is to give Senator McCarthy altogether too much credit. What his campaign actually proved was that there was no significant Communist influence on the US government and certainly not the gigantic Communist conspiracy that he alleged, though any number of fine careers were destroyed along the way.
However what is true is that there were some Communists and Communist sympathisers in the US government in the 1940s, even if both their number and their influence were absurdly exaggerated by Senator McCarthy and his followers. To that extent one can say that there was at least some factual basis to Senator McCarthy’s campaign.
By contrast this latest anti-Trump campaign has produced no evidence of any illicit contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians at all, undoubtedly because no evidence of such illicit contacts in fact exists.
In the absence of evidence of any illicit contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians, those behind the anti-Trump campaign therefore have had to make use of licit contacts.
Thus General Flynn was attacked for speaking to the Russian ambassador before the inauguration even though as the President elect’s nominee for National Security Adviser he was simply doing his job, and now Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General of the United States no less, is being attacked for meeting with the Russian ambassador as part of his work as a United States Senator.
In the case of General Flynn there was at least a case against him, however essentially fictional and threadbare, on the strength of his supposed violation of the Logan Act and of his (almost certainly unintentional) misreporting of his conversation to the Vice-President.
In the case of Attorney General Jeff Sessions there is no case at all.