Sessions denies collusion as Trump eyes Mueller
Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week heatedly denied having colluded with Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential campaign, amid reports that President Donald Trump had to be talked out of firing the special counsel now investigating the Russia scandal. In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions said the insinuation that his meetings with the Russian ambassador during the campaign meant that he was cooperating with Moscow was an “appalling and detestable lie.” The former Alabama senator defended writing a memo justifying Trump’s firing of Comey, saying his recusal from campaign-related investigations “cannot interfere with my ability to oversee the Department of Justice, including the FBI.” Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation in March after admitting to two previously undisclosed meetings with Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak; Sessions testified this week he had no memory of a reported third meeting with the ambassador. To the frustration of Democratic senators, Sessions repeatedly insisted it was “inappropriate” to discuss his private conversations with the president about why Comey was fired or any other matter.
Comey last week provided the Senate Intelligence Committee with detailed accounts of his interactions with Trump and his team. (See Controversy.) Comey said he took detailed notes on the encounters because he was concerned the president “might lie” about them later, and admitted leaking these memos after he was fired in order to force the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel. Trump said Comey’s testimony was full of “false statements and lies,” but said it also gave him “total and complete vindication.”
Christopher Ruddy, a longtime friend of the president’s, revealed this week that Trump was considering firing Robert Mueller, the special counsel who’s taken over the Russia investigation. Trump’s aides have talked him out of that extreme step for now, The New York Times reported. But White House sources told the Times that Trump might change his mind.
What the editorials said
Sessions’ testimony was a mess of obfuscation and contradiction, said The New York Times. The attorney general insisted he couldn’t discuss his conversations with the president because of some longstanding Justice Department policy— yet “couldn’t confirm that it existed in writing or that, if it did, he had actually read it.” He claimed his recommendation to fire Comey was based on the former director’s handling of the Clinton investigation, even though he “originally praised” Comey for announcing new emails had been found 11 days before the election.
Anytime he was asked a difficult question, Sessions refused to answer or said he didn’t recall.
“There are legitimate concerns about Mueller,” said the New York Post. Three of the Justice Department investigators he has hired have given political donations to Democrats, and Mueller is known to be “good friends” with Comey. But for Trump to fire Mueller would be a monumental mistake. He’d have to order Mueller’s supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to do the actual firing, and Rosenstein would likely refuse and resign—prompting a repeat of Watergate’s Saturday Night Massacre. More importantly, firing Mueller would strongly suggest that Trump has something to hide. “Don’t do it, Mr. President.”
What the columnists said
If Sessions’ testimony revealed anything, said Philip Bump in The Washington Post, it’s that Trump is “genuinely uninterested” in finding out how much Russia interfered in our election. Sessions admitted he could not remember a single occasion on which the president expressed concern or curiosity about the issue. Trump clearly sees the investigation as a “hassle, not an important step toward assuring the sanctity of American elections.”
Sessions doesn’t deserve this “public thrashing,” said Gregg Jarrett in FoxNews.com. The “canard” that he misled senators at his confirmation hearing about his meetings with Kislyak was always based on a simple misunderstanding. Sessions has explained that he met with Kislyak as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not as a member of Trump’s campaign team; that’s why he didn’t report it. Maybe so, said Michael Goodwin in the New York Post, but the president made a mistake in hiring Sessions. As a member of the campaign team, the attorney general “knew almost from day one that he would have to recuse himself” from the Russia investigation. That ultimately led to the appointment of Mueller as a special counsel, leaving Trump’s fate in the hands of “an unrestrained, independent investigation.”
If you think Trump won’t fire Mueller, think again, said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. As Comey’s dismissal made clear, the president has “no intrinsic respect for political norms,” and he finds it intolerable to be under investigation. More importantly, he has found that Republicans and his water carriers on Fox News will support him no matter what he does. The president is a “creature of impulses,” and at some point he’ll find it impossible to “repress his instinct” to rid himself of the irritating Mueller.
On the cover: Special counsel Robert Mueller and former FBI Director James Comey. Illustration by Howard McWilliam. Cover photos from Newscom, Apple, Newscom