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Sessions recuses but won't admit his mistake

Jeff Sessions misled Congress about his own dealings with Russia. How can he be trusted with hacking inquiry?

Let's keep this simple: U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III misrepresented, under oath, his contact with Russian officials during the campaign. No amount of tortured reasoning, no explanation about what "hat" he was wearing when those meetings took place, whether as a United States Senator or surrogate for Donald Trump, no grasping for broader context or how many foreign officials he met with last year changes that. He met with the Russian ambassador at least twice in 2016, including a private meeting in his office in September after, as The Washington Post first pointed out, claiming he'd had no such contact during his confirmation hearings.

Here's exactly what was said. After Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat, asked Senator Sessions about reports of repeated contact between the Trump campaign and Russian officials in light of the hacking scandal and what he would do if he found out that the meetings had, indeed, taken place, Mr. Sessions said this: "Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn't have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it."

That's a pretty serious alternative fact. At best, it was misleading, but it might also be fairly described as a lie. That Mr. Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak isn't even in dispute. And while Mr. Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Trump campaign-Russia ties is the right one, it doesn't help public confidence in his integrity that he continues to stand by his original testimony, telling reporters at a press conference today that his claim was "honest and correct." His argument is, as he insisted in a statement earlier in the day, that didn't meet with Russian officials "to discuss issues of the campaign," a distinction he hadn't previously made. This is, to put it politely, obfuscation and political spin of the first order.

What a marvel that Mr. Sessions and his staff took this long to consider stepping away from direct involvement in any investigation into, or prosecution arising from, the Russian hacking episode and its relationship with Mr. Trump and his campaign staff. The call for recusal had gotten so loud that even some of the Republican Party's most stalwart loyalists like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Oversight Committee, had joined in the chorus. Imagine that. Mr. Chaffetz who, as of Jan. 31 had no fewer than 43 possible inquiries up his sleeve but not one of them Trump-related, is now concerned about the Trump-Russia connection.

At his news conference, Mr. Sessions said his choice to recuse himself wasn't related to revelations in The Post or elsewhere but simply a matter of procedure. He said he had already set Thursday as the day to discuss the matter with his staff, and they had recommended recusal.

Some Democrats, including Baltimore's own Rep. Elijah Cummings, have called for Mr. Sessions to step down or be fired because they believe he perjured himself, and we would not object to his departure, for many reasons. Certainly, it isn't clear why the attorney general should stay when National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had to resign for misleading Vice President Mike Pence on the circumstances of his own meetings with Ambassador Kislyak. It appears Mr. Sessions' defense rests entirely on the point that Senator Franken had raised issues about multiple and perhaps regular meetings between Russian officials and those associated with the Trump campaign and Mr. Sessions did not believe his encounters fit that criteria.

Nevertheless, the allegations that Russian computer hackers sought to sway the vote in the last election in order to get Mr. Trump elected president and that the Trump campaign might have had knowledge of this — or might even have been involved a quid pro quo of any kind — deserves a full and fair investigation. That requires not only a recusal by Mr. Sessions (much as Loretta Lynch recused herself from the Hillary Clinton email inquiry) but the appointment of a "special counsel" to ensure that investigation is independent and nonpartisan.

Right now, the drip, drip, drip of information about Russia's ties with Mr. Trump, his inner circle and the inconsistencies between their claims and the facts, is doing serious damage to this administration and to any confidence the American people might have that — as unlikely as the scenario might have once seemed — their president is not a tool of Vladimir Putin.

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