There is a lot of parsing of Jeff Session’s answer to Al Franken at his confirmation hearings. Here’s my contribution.
First, this is the exchange:
FRANKEN: OK. CNN has just published a story and I’m telling you this about a news story that’s just been published. I’m not expecting you to know whether or not it’s true or not. But CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, “Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” These documents also allegedly say quote, “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?SESSIONS: Senator Franken, 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 didn’t have – did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.
What I find remarkable is that Franken didn’t ask Sessions about any contacts he himself might have had with the Russians. He asked him what he would do if Trump officials had such contacts. So, Sessions wasn’t being pressed about his own contacts and deny having any, he volunteered that he didn’t “have communications with the Russians.” If Sessions was deliberately lying here, he went out of his way to lie under oath for no discernible reason. Who does that? Especially if, assuming for the sake of argument that Sessions had a cognizance of guilt, there were about a thousand different ways to dance around Franken’s question without creating this vulnerability.
There is also the phrase Sessions used, “communications with the Russians,” which it seems is pretty clearly meant to denote the sort of nefarious coordination that Franken is getting out. All of this suggests that the most reasonable reading is that Sessions wasn’t thinking of his two contacts with the Russian ambassador — one of which was very informal in a large group — in this context. (I’m not an expert on Russian intelligence operations, but it is hard to believe that the Kremlin sends its ambassador to the U.S. to brief U.S. senators about them and coordinate how to carry them out.)
The Sessions answers have created a big political headache for him and obviously he should have been more careful. But like so much else since the election, the hysteria doesn’t come close to matching the underlying facts.