Jeff Sessions' evasions: Our view

Recusal was the right move, now independent investigations are needed.

The Editorial Board

Charges of Russian interference in last year’s presidential election continue to hover over the Trump presidency like a dark cloud. And on Thursday, it rained down again.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on March 2, 2017.

Less than two days after the president’s well-received address to Congress, the White House was roiled by revelations of two meetings during the campaign between the Russian ambassador and Jeff Sessions, then a senator and Trump adviser and now the attorney general.

At the end of a tumultuous day, as prominent Republicans joined Democrats in calling for Sessions to remove himself from any Justice Department investigation of Russian meddling, Sessions did what he had to do and should have already done: He announced his recusal, saying, “I feel like ... I should not be involved investigating a campaign I had a role in.”

No kidding, especially now that Sessions could become a subject of an inquiry into whether he gave false statements under oath during his confirmation hearings in January.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with senators interacting with ambassadors and other foreign officials. But as so often happens in Washington, Sessions' predicament is less about the original acts — meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, one during the Republican convention in July and one in his Senate office in September — than the impression that he tried to cover them up.

‘I have decided to recuse myself’: Other views

Asked during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing what he'd do if he learned that anyone with the campaign had communicated with the Russian government, Sessions volunteered, “I did not have communications with the Russians.” And when he had a chance to set the record straight in writing, he whiffed again. “No,” he wrote when asked whether he had been in contact with anyone connected to the Russian government about the 2016 election.

On Thursday, Sessions maintained his reply at the Senate hearing was “honest and correct,” while allowing that he "should have slowed down" and mentioned his meetings with the ambassador. Maybe in some lawyerly, hair-splitting context, Sessions didn't perjure himself. But citizens expect more from the nation's top law enforcement officer.

Whether Sessions will be able to keep his job, or be forced to resign like former national security adviser Michael Flynn, remains to be seen. The question for investigators is why Flynn, and now Sessions, felt compelled to dissemble about their dealings with Kislyak.

That feeds into a broader issue: How to get an independent, impartial investigation into this politically sensitive Russian issue. Both House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., marred their credibility when they talked to reporters as part of a White House-directed effort to rebut reports of frequent contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russians.

To find facts about the Russian role in the 2016 election, congressional leaders should name a select, Watergate-style committee of highly respected members from both parties and perhaps from both chambers. Any evidence of criminal wrongdoing would be referred to the Justice Department, where a high-ranking career official, not a political appointee, should appoint a special counsel, someone respected for integrity and independence. (Such a prosecutor would be unlike the independent counsels of old, who were appointed by judges and ran notoriously endless, expensive investigations with little accountability.)

No one should lose sight of how important it is get to the bottom of what happened. The FBI and intelligence officials agree that Russians hacked into email files at the Democratic National Committee, revealing information embarrassing to Hillary Clinton and leaked during the campaign. After the election, Flynn talked to the Russian ambassador about sanctions put in place to punish the Russians for the hacking, and then tried to cover it up.

Contrary to White House denials, mounting evidence points to a variety of meetings between Russian operatives and people associated with the Trump campaign. Hanging over it all is Donald Trump's bizarre reluctance to criticize Vladimir Putin, Russia's autocratic thug of a leader.

Jeff Sessions' evasions are just one piece of a much larger puzzle.

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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