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The Russian plot thickens

Trump calls Schumer a hypocrite and suggests starting an investigation into his ties to Russia. (March 3, 2017)

The cloud of suspicion over Russian interference in the American presidential election has widened, with new demands from congressional Republicans as well as Democrats for a special counsel's investigation, akin to the Watergate inquiry that forced the 1974 resignation of Richard Nixon.

The Justice Department has confirmed that, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Jeff Sessions, now Mr. Trump's attorney general but then Alabama's senior U.S. senator, met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — contrary to Mr. Sessions' sworn testimony at his confirmation hearings.

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As first reported by The Washington Post, Messrs. Sessions and Kislyak met in Mr. Sessions' Senate office for a second time late in the campaign. A Sessions spokesperson said the then-senator held the meeting in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not as a key foreign policy adviser in the Trump campaign. But Mr. Sessions in his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when asked about the reported Russian hacking, said he was "not aware of any of those activities" and that he "did not have communications with the Russians."

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont in a written question asked Mr. Sessions whether he had "been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after Election Day." Mr. Sessions wrote: "No."

Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees announced last month they were conducting investigations into a potential Russian-influence scandal President Trump has derided as a "ruse." The most persistent advocate of such hearings has been Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, but the intelligence committees customarily conduct their hearings in private, so the public might not be best served by them.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, a prominent House Republican who relentlessly pushed his party's investigations into the deaths of American diplomats in 2012 at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and who blamed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, took up the call for a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

Mr. Issa, the former chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told host Bill Maher on his HBO show: "You're going to have to use the special prosecutor statute and office." While other Democrats called for Mr. Sessions to resign, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued he should at least recuse himself from any role in investigating the Russian involvement in the election. On Thursday, Mr. Sessions agreed to do just that. But Mr. Trump quickly expressed his "total" confidence in his attorney general.

The case for a special prosecutor was tested and validated in 1973-74, after a lengthy series of public hearings by a special Senate inquiry into the Watergate scandal. As the world now knows, burglars linked to the Nixon re-election committee broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at a Washington hotel-and-office complex, and the subsequent investigation captivated a huge television audience.

The Senate hearings uncovered the existence of a secret audio taping system in the Oval Office, and the tapes eventually were made public by Supreme Court order. Attorney General Elliot Richardson appointed Archibald Cox, a Harvard law professor, as Watergate special prosecutor under a federal statute.

Nixon later ordered Richardson to fire Cox, but he refused — as did his deputy — but the next Justice Department official in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, did so. A new special prosecutor finished the job, however, and Nixon, facing impeachment, finally resigned in 1974.

Whether such a dramatic and historic outcome would be the result of another appointed special prosecutor is anybody's guess. But public interest in the Russian connection in the 2016 election would certainly be greatly enhanced.

Ironically, Mr. Trump himself in the campaign threatened if elected to appoint a special prosecutor, saying Democratic presidential Hillary Clinton would be thrown in jail for her alleged "crooked" emails uncovered through Russian email hacking.

That campaign promise is one on which the new president has not yet followed through. In light of the olive branch he offered to the Democrats in his recent address to Congress, she probably has nothing to worry about.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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