Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday announced that he would recuse himself "from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns" for president in 2016.
Things came to a head after a Washington Post report revealed that Sessions had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign season — and subsequently denied meeting with Russians during Senate hearings for his attorney general nomination months later.
Outside of his recusal, Sessions has maintained that he did not lie to Congress. The White House has brushed off the matter altogether. But the report has congressional Democrats calling for Sessions's resignation.
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To speak to the legal precedence of Sessions's testimony and Washington's response to the report, I called up Richard Painter, who served as the chief ethics lawyer in President George W. Bush's White House from 2005 to 2007, and is currently a law professor at the University of Minnesota. He is also on the board of Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington, which has taken a strong stance against President Donald Trump's various conflicts of interest.
Painter argues that not only was there no wiggle room around Sessions's recusal from any investigations into the Trump campaign's alleged ties with Russia, but there is a case for Sessions to resign from the attorney general post altogether — and the White House isn't helping the situation with its response to the whole thing.
Here is our full conversation, prior to Sessions's recusal announcement, lightly edited for clarity.
How do you understand Attorney General Jeff Sessions's Senate testimony and the reports that followed?
He said they had not had talks with Russians during the political campaign. And now he says, well, what he meant to say was that he had not had contact with the Russians to discuss the political campaign. But that's not what he said.
And if he had contact with the Russians as a United States senator, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, he needed to disclose that and qualify that answer. Then of course he would have had to answer questions about what those conversations were. I will add that it is unusual for a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee to be conducting these types of unilateral discussions with the Russian ambassador. And I think we can rest assured that the Russians have very detailed notes of these conversations or tape recordings of them.
[Sessions] misled the Senate, and the Senate was entitled to find out about the communications with the Russians.
Would you say Jeff Sessions committed perjury, or is there some wiggle room?
This is one of those situations where the testimony was highly misleading. Whether or not it amounts to perjury is debatable. Of course, we had a situation with President Clinton 20 years ago where he was never prosecuted for perjury even though he gave a highly misleading testimony in a civil deposition.
The difference here, of course, is that this is a matter of extreme national importance — what the Russians are doing in the United States and who's been contacting the Russians. Whereas the president's personal sex life is not of importance at all to the American people. [But] there are still consequences of such actions, particularly when it comes to issues of national security.
It's very rare for these kinds of perjury cases to move forward. What's the precedent here?
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, under the Bush administration, did resign from his post because some members of Congress felt his testimony was misleading — he was never prosecuted for anything. His testimony was never so misleading that he could be prosecuted even with a failure to provide information to Congress. [But] it was sufficiently dubious that he did end up resigning.
The attorney general of Richard Nixon, Richard Kleindienst, in 1972 in his own confirmation hearing was asked whether there had been discussions between himself and the White House about a pending antitrust case brought by DOJ against ITT [International Telephone and Telegraph], and Kleindienst said no. And then Leon Jaworski uncovered the Nixon tapes where the president told Kleindienst to drop the ITT case.