By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – If the Trump administration truly has nothing to hide regarding Russia, then the president and his team are handling the various investigations into their ties with that country in the stupidest way possible.
That much became clear during Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ testimony before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
The only intelligent reason for Sessions to step before that committee was to seize the opportunity to put some questions to rest. Less than five months in, the Trump presidency is swimming in shark-infested waters while bleeding from a thousand or so self-inflicted cuts.
Sessions’ job was to bandage those cuts and stop the bleeding.
Instead, he opened them wider.
The attorney general refused to answer questions about his conversations with the president, not by advancing an executive privilege argument but by saying that it was Justice Department “policy” not to disclose such discussions – as if an informal policy could take precedence over being under oath. He grew petulant when some senators, particularly Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, pressed him.
And Sessions made a case for involving himself in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey despite recusing himself from all matters dealing with Russia that made no sense at all. (Basically, Sessions said his recusal was a real recusal except when recusing himself did not suit his or the president’s purposes; then it wasn’t a recusal but we all should pretend anyway that it was.)
All in all, it was a performance of rather spectacular ineptitude.
While Donald Trump’s dwindling band of cheerleaders in conservative and alt-right media circles cheered Sessions on, mistaking his defensiveness for assertiveness, the real sign of how much trouble the president is in came in other forms.
Some state attorneys general and a couple hundred Democratic members of Congress either have sued or are preparing to sue Trump to force him to reveal his as-yet undisclosed financial dealings with foreign countries.
The sharks are starting to circle, not just because the blood has drawn them, but because they can see their prey flailing in the water.
The president’s public approval rating has cratered, with three out of five Americans now disapproving of the job he’s doing and distrusting both his judgment and his veracity.
If Trump has nothing to conceal regarding Russia, this was unnecessary.
I’ve talked with prosecutors and constitutional lawyers about this. They all have said that making a case that the president or members of his campaign colluded with Russia to alter the outcome of the 2016 election would be hard.
First, investigators would have to define collusion. Then they would have to demonstrate that contact with Russian officials constituted collusion. If they made it that far, they then would have to show that those contacts and that “collusion” affected the outcome in a tangible way, a tough challenge given that the Russian campaign focused on releasing damaging information, not altering ballots.
Even if determined investigators and prosecutors could demonstrate all that, the president could limit the damage by firing or otherwise distancing himself from the guilty parties – presuming that Trump wasn’t dumb to take part in such conversations himself.
So, the charges that he colluded with Russia never presented much of a legal threat.
And the political damage could be minimized by containing it quickly. It’s early in Trump’s term and he has plenty of time to recover before facing the voters, particularly if he begins to deliver on his campaign promises.
Refusing to disclose entangling financial ties and obstructing justice, though, are different matters. Finding evidence and proving harm in those cases is not as difficult as demonstrating collusion.
That’s the trap into which Sessions and other members of the Trump team have marched the president. To spare him potential but likely temporary embarrassment, they have led him into real danger.
If Donald Trump has no financial ties to Russia, he should release his tax returns and other financial records to put this controversy to an end.
If he does have such ties, then stonewalling, ducking and dodging as Attorney General Sessions did only delays the day of reckoning – and makes it likely that the cost of that reckoning will be much, much higher.
Not smart at all.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.