‘We have to find out what happened!’
The political melodrama coming regularly out of Washington returned this week when Attorney General Jeff Sessions was called to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee about potential Russian interference in our last presidential election. It was predictably partisan, with what appeared to be an abundance of “fishing expeditions” by Democrat senators hoping they could goad Sessions into an unguarded statement to be used against him later. That failed: he kept his cool.
Which is not to say there were no heated exchanges. Sessions was accused by innuendo of conspiring with Russian Ambassador Kislyak, something he denied vigorously.
What stood out for this observer of the two and one-half hour spectacle was the nature of the Democrats’ questioning — they were trying to discredit the attorney general, not to nail down evidence of Russian interference in our election. They demanded textual proof of Department of Justice regulations preventing the attorney general from testifying about private communication he has with the president, and a few accused him of obstruction of justice when he didn’t have the text of such a regulation to show them.
From my own experience reviewing official State Department documents for the Freedom of Information Office, I can say there’s an expectation the president can exempt from FOIA any communication with his cabinet under the principle of “deliberative process,” just as policy discussions inside an Executive Branch office are also exempted. The idea behind such an exemption is forcing release of that communication would prevent open discussion of policy options. That is, no secretary of state would have an open discussion with his president if he knew the substance of that conversation would appear on the front pages the next day. That would severely curtail frank and open policy debate.
More importantly, though, the hearing added absolutely nothing to our understanding of possible Russian interference in the election. And, again from personal experience, I can say it’s not unusual for a foreign diplomat to have contact with government officials regarding their elections. I have personally done so in my foreign assignments.
We should also understand Russian interference wouldn’t only take the form of trying to influence the vote tally — it would also likely try to harm American confidence in our elections. Russian Ambassador Kislyak doesn’t have to be an accomplished operative to make some Americans doubt the last election — the Democrats are doing everything in their power to make that happen already. Some of their effort is probably directed at fundraising, but there are still some Democrats who apparently think maybe they can force Trump out of office and have Hillary named to replace him.
Senator Wyden (D-Oregon) quoted former FBI Director Comey as saying he knew of evidence that should have forced Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation of Russian meddling, but “he could not discuss it in an open setting.” Wyden challenged Sessions to tell the committee what it was Comey knew he could not divulge. Sessions was emphatic in his reply this was an innuendo with no evidence. The old vaudeville line came to mind: “have you stopped beating your wife yet?”
Charles Krauthammer pointed out after the hearing this investigation has been going on for seven months with zero evidence of Trump administration involvement in Russian meddling. Given the leaks in Washington, that would be impossible if there was anything to the charges. But if there’s nothing to find out, the refrain “we have to find out what happened” can be prolonged many more months. It’s nearly impossible to prove an absence of evidence: the opposition can just keep insisting we need to look deeper.
Fred LaSor retired from the Foreign Service in 1997 and lives in the Carson Valley.