So what if Attorney General Jeff Sessions keeps forgetting things? Let’s not make a federal case out of it. We're all friends here, as you could see from the deference granted Sessions in his testimony before his former colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Before taking their seats, Chairman Richard Burr and ranking member Mark Warner went down to the witness table for big handshakes. In case you didn’t get the warm and fuzzies from that, everyone giggled when Sessions admitted to liking spy movies that had plots less fantastic than Trump campaign officials colluding with Russians in hacking our election.
Sessions endured barely a scratch all afternoon, despite some fiery questions from Democrats. Sessions, the national security advisor for the Trump campaign, blamed others for the pickle he’s in. First, Sen. Al Franken, for his “rambling” question about any contacts he may have had with Russian officials. It was at the end of six tiring hours of testimony and it was only later that he recalled two meetings with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place as part of his senatorial duties. He didn’t recuse himself because of those inconsequential encounters, nor was the recusal “problematic” as Comey said, but required by federal regulation because of his involvement in the Trump campaign.
On Comey, Sessions had no coherent narrative, nearly six months now into the new administration, as to why the former FBI director was fired. To hear Sessions, Comey’s firing had nothing to do with the Russia investigation, as Trump admitted in his Oval Office meeting with Russian officials (and to Lester Holt on national television), therefore Sessions did not need to recuse himself. It had everything to do with wanting a “fresh start” and reasons (notably Comey’s messy handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails, for which Trump wanted to lock her up) outlined in Deputy Rod Rosenstein’s memo. Sessions also said Comey’s a big boy and could protect himself from meeting alone with Trump by following long-established Justice Department rules. If he had a problem, it was below Sessions’ pay grade. He should have talked to Rosenstein, his direct supervisor about it. Oh, and “anonymous sources” and “secret innuendo” are to blame, for “appalling and detestable lies” and stories questioning Sessions’ honesty.
Sessions came across as genuine in an “aw shucks” Southern lawyer way but not without shades of Trump. Being a top aide in the Trump White House means blaming fake news and leaks (the ex-post facto reason for firing Comey is that he’s a leaker). There is a flip side to the first cabinet meeting yesterday during which members thanked Trump for their blessings. It’s the anger, ridicule, and isolation you will face should you not back the president up on every point. Sessions could answer questions about conversations with the president who has not asserted executive privilege, but it would be hell to pay.
Sessions’ faulty memory is endemic in the Trump Administration. But Sessions is not alone in his faulty memory, not connecting the dots, fearing the president, or feeling, like Ivanka Trump on Fox News Monday, the “viciousness” of people out to get them. It starts with the president who operates outside the norms of the presidency, including exempting himself from conflict of interest rules and continuing to get reports from his sons running his business during his presidency. It trickles down to Trump’s White House counsel Donald McGahn, who told the head of the Office of Government Ethics that its rules do not apply to the Trump Administration. This is the same White House counsel who asked former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, after she told him Michael Flynn had been compromised for lying to the Vice president: “Why does it matter to DOJ if one White House official lies to another?”
There’s never been an administration of greater wealth or one with more potential conflicts of interest. It just slipped Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s mind that he is in business with a Russian-American who made a fortune in oil after the break-up of the Soviet Union, that he’s on the board of a company incorporated in the Cayman Islands, and that he had $95 million he forgot to list in his disclosure documents. Oops, he’ll fix that in his disclosures and get out of his partnership with the Ukrainian businessman in June. It’s June.
Among the many problems with this attitude is that it’s working. You don’t see Mnuchin or many others who’ve not disclosed all of their financial ties before a committee today. Sessions was there because the ball being chased by everyone right now is the Comey firing. It’s a reasonable calculation among the wealthiest cabinet in history that you won’t be hauled in to account for your failures to disclose.
Time was the White House counsel enforced ethics rules inside and the OGE on the outside. For months, the White House refused to say who from the swamp Trump pledged to drain was serving in the administration. Finally, the number dribbled out of those who were once paid to get favors for, say, Devon Energy, were now in on regulating — or not regulating — it now. The rough number of former lobbyists is 16, with five times the number of waivers granted in the first four months of the Obama Administration.
It’s no surprise that Sessions’ Justice Department has just concluded that the emoluments clause, payments of foreign government to curry favor with the president, does not apply to Trump. Two state attorneys general disagree and have sued on the basis of not knowing “whether decisions are made or actions are taken to benefit the United States or to benefit President Trump."
Money, literally and figuratively, is on the latter. If acting in a way that benefits the country hurts his company, Trump will let the country fend for itself.
Chairman Burr ended the ceremony the way it began. He could hardly leap the dais for another fulsome handshake but he praised Sessions’ testimony, asked if he might provide some written answers at some vague time in the future, thanked him for the sacrifices he’s making for his country, and slipped in a basketball joke. Sessions emerged unscathed for now. The same can’t be said for the country.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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