Commentary Politics

Sessions, Trump, and Russia: Where Do We Go From Here?

Jeff Hauser

Perhaps more interesting than what Democrats ought to demand is dispelling the notion that Senate Democrats are powerless. Indeed, they have more power than is generally understood.

It is difficult enough to keep up with the gusher of news concerning the Trump administration, Russia, and the U.S. attorney general.

But as you follow the latest revelations of ties between Donald Trump‘s team and Russia, here’s some context that might help you understand why we got here, advice on how to think about what we know (and don’t know), and where we might go from here.

What the World Needs Now… Is a Couple of Real Investigations

The Trump-Russia story’s forward momentum is right now based on the weight of its many moving parts and a few frantic last-gasp steps put into place by the outgoing Obama administration.

Congressional Democratic Leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi (CA) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY) are—appropriately—calling for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign following news, first reported in the Washington Post last night, that Sessions did not disclose during his confirmation hearing that he spoke twice with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the 2016 election.

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To me, there are four things that need to happen to ensure the country that the Trump-Russia investigations move forward in a less haphazard and more serious manner:

  1. A special prosecutor with a reputation for independence should be appointed and empowered, so we know that any underlying crimes that may have been committed will be prosecuted.
  2. As Brookings’ Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes argue at the Lawfare blog, we need a “select congressional committee with a large and first-rate staff and a membership committed to getting answers.” Criminal and congressional investigations will overlap, but they serve distinct purposes and one cannot substitute for the other. And existing Senate Intelligence Committee efforts have been deeply compromised by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)’s evident lack of independence.
  3. Trump’s tax returns should be made public. Tax returns alone are not the Holy Grail some imagine, given that many underestimate how easy it is to use “shell companies” and LLCs to hide true activity even on a tax return. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal in December published a piece titled, “How Donald Trump’s Web of LLCs Obscures His Business Interests.” Investigators will need to dig deeper, and President Trump must be forced to turn over far more than just his tax returns. But Trump’s tax returns will be illuminating, and making them public has heretofore been an easy ask of all modern presidents. Trump cannot continue to get away with hiding his.
  4. Jeff Sessions should resign as attorney general, because there cannot be such compelling questions about the honesty of our nation’s chief law enforcement officer. Of course, Sessions’ racism ought to have been disqualifying from his being nominated or confirmed in the first place, and his integrity was previously known to be lacking. But this most recent revelation based on testimony in his confirmation hearings have irreparably compromised him, and there is a bipartisan interest in inhibiting lying to the Senate that may not, sadly, exist with respect to rejecting all racists seeking prestigious jobs.

Perhaps more interesting than what Democrats ought to demand is dispelling the notion that Senate Democrats are powerless. Indeed, they have more power to enforce these requests than is generally understood.

Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to now-retired Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and current senior adviser at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, wrote an important piece in the Washington Post in January, saying:

Senate Democrats have a powerful tool at their disposal, if they choose to use it … That tool lies in the simple but fitting act of withholding consent. An organized effort to do so on the Senate floor can bring the body to its knees and block or severely slow down the agenda of a president who does not represent the majority of Americans.

The procedure for withholding consent is straightforward, but deploying it is tricky. For the Senate to move in a timely fashion on any order of business, it must obtain unanimous support from its members. But if a single senator objects to a consent agreement, McConnell, now majority leader, will be forced to resort to time-consuming procedural steps through the cloture process, which takes four days to confirm nominees and seven days to advance any piece of legislation — and that’s without amendment votes, each of which can be subjected to a several-day cloture process as well.

There are literally more than 500 executive branch openings that require Senate confirmation, as well as seats on critical independent commissions like the Federal Reserve and Securities and Exchange Commission. There are more than 120 judicial vacancies. There is the future of the Affordable Care Act, which many Republicans indicate they are so interested in dismantling. Infrastructure. Trump’s “wall.”

You get the idea—Senate Republicans will want to… use the Senate.

Senate Democrats can cause havoc unless and until the demands for transparency and disclosure are met. They need to make the four demands above, and possibly more. They have power if they are willing to use it as a collective force for honesty: Only with the confidence that the Trump-Russia investigations are ongoing and real should Senate Democrats allow the Senate to proceed as if everything is normal.

Nothing less than the integrity of our elections, and thus our democracy, is at stake.

Reject Lazy Contrarianism—This Story Is Not a Distraction

Projecting world-weary cynicism—suggesting all these “takes” are overstated—is the lazy way to appear smart.

We all know better.

The Trump-Russia story has definitely been subject to this sort of contrarianism. Some remind us that intelligence can be distorted or misrepresented. Others that maybe Sessions was just hiding something inconvenient amidst hysteria about Trump and Russia, rather than covering up anything nefarious.

Here’s my advice: When a contrarian asks, wearily, “Don’t you know intelligence can be distorted or misrepresented by intelligence agencies,” make clear that while you do not know where a serious investigation will end, the public case for scrutiny is almost entirely based on facts in the public view, rather than blind trust of intelligence agencies.

Remember disgraced National Security Adviser Michael Flynn?

And there has always been wisps of smoke.

As early as late 2015, serious reporters were noting pro-Trump internet activity from Russian trolls.

Recall Trump family business ties to Russia. Felix Sater. Rex Tillerson. As I argued in a Huffington Post article last week, Wilbur Ross’ Russian ties have received too little attention.

Carter Page, Paul Manafort—there are a lot of proper nouns that signal that Russia and Trump enjoyed unusually close ties before the election, and believing that to be noteworthy doesn’t require blind fealty to intelligence agencies.

Keep in mind that the Russian economy is smaller than that of South Korea, Australia, Canada, or Italy. Does anyone believe that Trump’s ties to South Korea are greater than his ties to Russia, even as South Korea is wealthier?

One can be very successful in global business and yet have very limited connections to the Russian economy. The Russian economy is not terribly significant internationally outside of the realms of commodities (like oil and nickel), shady arms deals, and money laundering.

Russia Is Not the Most Important Issue

The Trump-Russia story is worth following, not in place of all of the other issues you care about (those matter too!), but on its own. The Trump-Russia story is real.

There is an oddly pervasive take out there that Russia is “distracting” progressives. If Russia is not your thing, that’s certainly OK. But if you care, that’s also OK!

Distrust efforts to persuade you that the Trump-Russia connections are entirely normal and the implications that Michael Flynn resigned and Jeff Sessions is at best “embattledbecause they are victims of “hysteria.”

Look, the Trump presidency is at this point a full court press of terrible. No one story or angle adequately expresses it all. But the idea that a president can do so much that is so awful that some of it ought to be ignored makes no sense.

In general, there is no “one true thing.” Whether “your issues” are foreign or domestic; economic or “social”; workplace or cultural; sexism or racism; homophobia; the environment; or access to contraception—never listen to people who tell you your passions are unimportant.

Progressives need passion, not obedience!

Are Cover-Ups Worse Than the Crime?

Is the cover-up worse than the crime? Well, as our nation’s Tweeter in Chief might say, “many people are saying” that.

Did Sessions do whatever he did because of “hysteria?” Is this is a cover-up highlighting innocent acts? As my 3-year-old likes to say, “Maybe, but maybe not.”

But in terms of Russia and Trump, keep in mind there are many serious crimes worse than perjury to Congress. The cover-up here could be much less bad than the underlying crimes.

Second, cover-ups get a bad rap. Why? You never hear their success stories, because the whole point of a cover-up is to hide something. It’s very hard for cover-ups to do a victory lap when they’re entire purpose is to fly under the radar.

But let’s not jump to the easy contrarianism that cover-ups are a dumb strategy. We do not reliably know how many political cover-ups are undertaken. I strongly suspect many political leaders of both political parties have at some point kept out of public view stories that would have outraged us if we knew of them.

But keep this in mind about Jeff Sessions. I worked on the fights for immigration reform in 2007 and 2013. I cried when those efforts failed. And I also learned that no matter how little respect I had for Sessions’ values, I respected his skills as an adversary. Sessions is savvy. He is a skilled political operator.

If you think Sessions lied to the Senate casually or needlessly, you think he is a fool.

We do not yet know whether Jeff Sessions had good reason to try to cover-up his conversations with the Russian ambassador, but I for one think it is quite possible.

Forgotten Context

Ken Starr’s “Javert” style investigations into President Bill Clinton, including morphing an investigation into a 1970s real-estate deal into an inquiry of Monica Lewinsky, meant the independent prosecutor law ended in 1999.

However, we should keep in mind that the idea of a legal mechanism to investigate the president outside the control of the president and their appointees makes enormous sense. As Jim Mokhiber noted in May 1998, “the wide-ranging investigation of Watergate and the Nixon administration” had “convinced the public of the need for someone independent of the executive branch to lead an investigation of the government’s upper echelons.”

Sen. Schumer is invoking the potential of an Independent Counsel law, but it shouldn’t be a last resort or limited to Jeff Sessions or Russia. Yes, the Independent Counsel law of the past, like many tools, is subject to misuse. The history of abuse is real, and something to learn from.

We do not end prosecutions for murder just because DNA evidence shows that some past murder convictions have been illegitimate. Instead, we act to ensure alleged criminals have adequate defense counsel, that steps to mitigate racism’s impact are undertaken, and that other reform measures are put in place.

Similarly, we need a modern Independent Counsel law to protect the public against excesses within the administrations of both parties.

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