WASHINGTON — House Democrats will have an excellent opportunity to question Attorney General Jeff Sessions — again — about the Donald Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia when he appears Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee. Prominent on their list of queries: Why did Sessions never previously mention he had been in a March 2016 meeting when George Papadopoulos, a member of Trump’s foreign policy team, said “he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin,” according to a court document filed this month?
What Congress’ most prominent Democrats are unlikely to do, however, is call for Sessions to resign — unlike earlier this year, when Democratic leadership was adamant that Sessions should resign over not telling Congress about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Now, as additional information has surfaced that contradicts prior statements Sessions made under oath, that leadership has remained silent.
The difference? Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel in May. Removing Sessions, who has recused himself from authority over Mueller’s investigation, could give Trump the opportunity to appoint a new attorney general who is not recused, and therefore could impede the investigation.
“Democratic folks do not want to make common cause with those on the far right who want to do damage to the special counsel,” said Norm Eisen, the White House ethics czar under former President Barack Obama. “Removing Sessions would be destabilizing to the investigation, and Democrats don’t want to upset the apple cart.”
In early March, both Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., vehemently called for Sessions to step down following a Washington Post report that said Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice while he was a foreign policy adviser for the campaign. Sessions had testified during his confirmation hearing in January that he “did not have any communications with the Russians.” Sessions said after the report was published that he and Kislyak had not discussed campaign matters.
“Now, after lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the attorney general must resign,” Pelosi said in a statement at the time. Schumer echoed Pelosi in a press conference, saying Sessions needed to resign “for the good of the country.”
But public calls by leading Democrats for Sessions to quit mostly ceased after Mueller’s appointment to look into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election and whether the campaign assisted — though there are exceptions, including the Congressional Black Caucus, which voted to call on Sessions to resign in July just as the Post reported that Kislyak said he and Sessions had discussed campaign-related matters. Staff members for Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said those senators still believe Sessions should resign.
Pelosi’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment asking if she still believed Sessions should go. Schumer’s office pointed to an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Nov. 2, in which he said Sessions needed to “come back” before Congress, but not that Sessions should resign. Neither publicly called for Sessions’ departure following the July report or when a document released with Papadopoulos’ guilty plea in the Russia probe revealed that Sessions had been part of a meeting at which Papadopoulos offered to help set up a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page has also testified to Congress on Nov. 2 that Sessions was aware Page had taken trips to Moscow during the campaign.
Sessions was asked in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October if he believed any Trump campaign surrogates had communications with the Russians. He responded, “I did not — and I’m not aware of anyone else that did. I don’t believe that it happened.”
In Schumer’s interview with Maddow, he said of Mueller: “God forbid if he’s interfered with.”
The Department of Justice declined to comment on calls for Sessions to resign. Should he do so, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would become acting attorney general and continue overseeing the special counsel, as he does now. If Rosenstein was ousted or stepped aside, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand would step into the acting attorney general role; Solicitor General Noel Francisco would be next in line.
John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Democrats may be restraining themselves in order to convey an air of seriousness and nonpartisanship. Democratic leadership “has likely communicated to the rank-and-file, ‘Let Mueller do his job, our yelling and screaming is only going to politicize this,’” Hudak said. “They can’t accuse Trump of politicizing if they’re doing the same thing.”
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Eisen, the former Obama ethics czar, said that although he thinks many congressional Democrats are avoiding the issue due to satisfaction with how Mueller is conducting the investigation and an unwillingness to rock the boat, Sessions’ ability to remain depends in part on how he conducts himself.
“If he had another instance of an out-and-out lie, or we found out he had other, personal contact with the Russians,” Eisen said. “I think you have to call out balls and strikes, and that would be a strikeout” as far as Democrats are concerned.
©2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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