The Corner

Law & the Courts

Claire McCaskill vs. Claire McCaskill

On Twitter this morning, Senator Claire McCaskill claimed that she has had “no call or meeting w/Russian ambassador. Ever”:

This should come as a surprise to . . . Claire McCaskill:

The most charitable way to read McCaskill’s tweet is to assume that she was talking about meetings she attended in her capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee. But if that’s the case, one wonders why she hasn’t extended the same method of interpretation to Jeff Sessions, whom she has called upon to resign on the grounds that he used similarly misleading and ambiguous language during his recent confirmation hearing.

Sessions answered two questions on Russia for his hearing. The first question, in written form, was asked as part of the pre-hearing formalities:

SEN. PATRICK J. LEAHY: 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?” the Vermont Democrat asked

SESSIONS: No.

The second was asked orally, during the hearing itself:

SEN. AL FRANKEN: “If there was any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this (2016) campaign, what would you do?,” the Minnesota Democrat asked.

SESSIONS: “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.”

Leahy’s question was clear in its focus. He was asking about “contact” with “any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election.” Sessions answered that one bluntly. No controversy there.

Franken’s inquiry was more open, but given the context of his remarks, it seems clear that he was focusing on the campaign. Here is what Franken said immediately prior to his question:

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.

Question: If McCaskill’s “no call or meeting” was assumed to inherit her reference to the Armed Services Committee, rather than any other function she might perform, then why isn’t Sessions’s “I did not have communications with the Russians” assumed to inherit Franken’s references to the “campaign” and to “surrogates” (Franken never refers to the Armed Services Committee)? Certainly, Sessions could have been clearer (as could Franken). Arguably, as a lawyer he should know better than to fall into traps such as these. But it seems a stretch to jump from “he screwed that up” to the charges of “perjury” and “treason” and “lying” that we’re hearing now (being under oath doesn’t impart superhuman memory, nor act as a prophylactic against giving ambiguous answers to ambiguous questions).

To avoid any appearance of impropriety, Sessions should recuse himself from the Russia investigation. He should give a full account of his communications with Russia, too. But resign? Come now. Let she who is without sin cast the first tweet.

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