Just How Abnormal Is a Senator’s Contact with Russian Diplomats?

by Fred Bauer

There are two points at issue regarding Attorney General Sessions’s discussions with the Russian ambassador: how those discussions square with his testimony during his confirmation hearings, and whether there is something inherently troubling about his encounters with the ambassador. Some political debate has focused on the first point (though it’s worth noting that just this morning Democratic senator Claire McCaskill made a statement about never meeting with Russian officials that appears at odds with the facts).

However, some of the Trump administration’s political opponents have gone beyond that first topic, implying that there’s something sinister about then-Senator Sessions meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. At the moment, we don’t know exactly the substance of these conversations, but, if meeting with the Russian ambassador is ipso facto a sign of untoward motives, a cloud of suspicion falls upon many members of Congress.

Along with Senator McCaskill, Senators Blunt (R., Mo.), Bozeman (R., Ark.), Cantwell (D., Wash.), Casey (D., Pa.), Klobuchar (D., Minn.), Landrieu (D., La.), Reed (D., R.I.), Whitehouse (D., R.I.), and Wicker (R., Miss.) met with Kislyak in 2013 to discuss international adoption policy. According to Foreign Policy, about 30 Senate Democrats attended a 2015 meeting with top diplomats from Russia and other nations; this meeting was intended to bolster support for the Obama administration’s Iran deal. In 2014, Senators John McCain and Dick Durbin met with Kislyak to discuss Crimea.

Even broader webs of association can be drawn. In 2012, the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Center held an event to celebrate the 200th anniversary of 1812. According to the program for this event, members of the “Honorary Congressional Committee” included Bob Casey, Thad Cochran, Steny Hoyer, Patrick Leahy, Dick Lugar, and Jack Reed. As honorary chairman for the event, former president George H. W. Bush wrote an introductory letter for the program. The honorary director for the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Center and the official patron for this event (which was held at the Russian Embassy): Sergey Kislyak.

One of the great distortions of politics in the Trump era is selective falsification of norms. (If we are going to defend constitutional norms — as we should — we should be honest about what norms are actually norms.) Contrary to the partisan memes du jour, it is quite common for senators to meet with foreign diplomats, and for years American policymakers have not uniformly shunned all contact with Russian diplomats.

None of means that Russian interference and the interference of other foreign governments in the 2016 election should not be thoroughly investigated. And whether or not Attorney General Sessions should recuse himself from this investigation is an entirely separate question.

But if your standard is that anyone who has had contact with the Russian ambassador is an agent of a foreign power, you will be bringing many Americans of unimpeachable patriotism to the dock.

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