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Why Sessions’ Russian diplomat meetings are raising questions

March 2, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
What are the stakes behind Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ move to recuse himself of any possible investigation into the Trump campaign’s contact with Russia amid worries of election interference? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA, and Michael Mukasey, who served as President George W. Bush’s attorney general.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Questions about Attorney General Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador aren’t limited to Capitol Hill.

We explore some of those now with John McLaughlin, a career intelligence official. He was a former deputy director of the CIA. He was also acting director of the agency in 2004. And Michael Mukasey, he served as President George W. Bush’s attorney general from 2007 to 2009.

Mr. Mukasey, I want to start with you.

At those hearings, at the confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, I noticed you sat right behind him. I am assuming that you are in support of his recusal today.

MICHAEL MUKASEY, Former U.S. Attorney General: Yes.

I think that the step he took was quite routine. What he said is, if there is a criminal investigation, then I should recuse myself, and I do recuse myself. And he pointed out that there is — there are regulations and there’s law on that subject, as contained in the code of federal regulations. And that was quite supportable and quite routine.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Mukasey, staying with you for a second, Attorney General Sessions is somebody who is known for his specificity of word choice, and he expects that, especially of the people that are testifying in front of him.

So what do you think accounts for either the forgetfulness or not answering the question? Really, what’s gotten us into this?

MICHAEL MUKASEY: There was neither forgetfulness nor not answering oft question.

And if Senator Blumenthal is looking for an explanation of the response, he ought to look in the transcript of the hearing before his committee. I hope he was paying attention.

The question that was asked by Senator Franken was related to contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign relating to the campaign. And I have got the paper in front of me. He, among other things, quoted a report that said: “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries of the Russian government. Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know, but, if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious, and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”

It’s all related to that kind of communication. His response was: “Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of these activities. I have been called as a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians. I’m unable to comment on it.”

The kind of communication that Senator Franken was asking about, that other members of the committee asked about, he didn’t have. He had a meeting in September with — not only with the Russian ambassador, but with about 20 or 21 other ambassadors from other countries, all discussing what the possible foreign relations of the United States would be in the Trump administration going forward.

This was only one of a number of meetings. And if he wants to find out what the content of that meeting was, maybe he can get a transcript of the attorney general’s press conference today, where he disclosed that he had an argument with the Russian ambassador about Russian activities in the Ukraine.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John McLaughlin, was this recusal enough?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, Former Acting CIA Director: I think it’s the minimum that the attorney general can do in this circumstance. And I think it was the right thing to do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Should there be more?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: At this point, I wouldn’t recommend more.

I think Attorney General Sessions is an honorable man. I think he made a mistake here. One can argue endlessly about whether it was really a mistake or not. The point is, the perception has taken root, and I think he had no choice but to do a recusal.

I don’t think that that is the end of this story. And I don’t think that the administration can investigate itself on this issue.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael Mukasey, I want to ask you. Then-Senator Sessions was one of a group of Trump supporters who took out an op-ed and said that they would like a special counsel to investigate then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch about her conversation with President Clinton on a tarmac, again, during the campaign.

Why is this different?

MICHAEL MUKASEY: It’s different for a couple reasons.

Number one, her conversation with the former president on a tarmac was anything but routine. He got onto her plane, I don’t know how, and had a conversation, to which there were no witnesses, at a time when his wife was under investigation. This is light years from that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John McLaughlin, the attorney general said today that, look, he — as a senator — and I asked this of Richard Blumenthal as well — this is commonplace for them to meet with ambassadors.

Why is this particular conversation with this particular individual, why should that be treated differently?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I think this is entirely about context. They’re right. People meet with ambassadors all the time all over Washington, and certainly senators do.

The context here is one that of a president who has been elected in an environment where he clearly spoke favorably often about Russia, where there are questions that remain about his relationship with Russia.

Leave aside whether there’s anything to it or not, those questions are there. There’s an evidentiary base for raising them. And it’s in that context that the meeting with Ambassador Kislyak gains salience and prominence and stands out and is worth talking about.

I think it’s entirely that. And I think, ultimately, we will need either a special prosecutor or a 9/11-type commission to get to the bottom of this. And I think those options would be ones that would actually favor the fortunes of the Republican Party and the nation as a whole.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How so?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I think, you know, this is going to hang around the party’s neck and around the president’s neck unless there is an absolutely, certain, dispassionate view by independent observers of what happened here, a determination.

Among other things, at some point — and I think the president has the right idea when he says, our relationship with Russia needs to be improved. I was in Russia in October, and I saw just how bad it is. It really is very close to a second Cold War. At that time, I came back and said, look, we’re only one miscalculation away from a shooting war somewhere with these people. It’s that tense.

So, the problem is, for the president, though, in trying to maneuver into a different kind of relationship, a more effective, cooperative relationship with Russia, it’s going to hang around his neck. And people will not trust whatever he comes up with in that relationship with Russia, unless this is all put to rest.

And I doubt, personally, that the Congress can do this, because it’s too politically hot.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael Mukasey, what about that point? For the good of the party, for the integrity of the office, should there be an independent counsel or a special prosecutor assigned to this?

MICHAEL MUKASEY: A special prosecutor would have to specially prosecute a crime.

And so far as I’m aware, nobody has identified any crime that was committed here. We don’t have people who are independent of a government. We have a Constitution that establishes three branches of government. One is Article I. That’s the Congress. Article II is the executive. And Article III is the judiciary.

You have got to be in one or the other. There’s no such thing as a free-flying independent investigation. You can have an investigation that’s conducted by a special counsel, if that’s warranted, but first somebody has to identify the commission of a crime and identify evidence of a crime. And so far that hasn’t happened.

The only crime that was committed here is the hacking by the Russians. Nobody is denying that. But that’s not the subject, as I understand it, of the current dispute.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. Mukasey, staying with you for a second, something I sort of asked Mr. McLaughlin as well.

Adam Entous of The Washington Post said today they reached out to all — they reached all 26 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sessions was the only one that met with Kislyak from Russia. Does that raise any flags?

MICHAEL MUKASEY: No, because he met also with about 20 or 25 other ambassadors.

I think the reason they sought out those meetings — and it was Kislyak who sought out the meeting, as did the other ambassadors — was that, by that time, Senator Sessions was involved in the campaign. They wanted to know what the American foreign policy would be.

And all of those ambassadors met sequentially, one after another, with Senator Sessions to dope out what the foreign policy of a Trump administration would be if Mr. Trump were elected and to see if they could press their points of view.

Apparently, Kislyak pressed his point of view on the subject of Ukraine with no great success, as was reported today by the attorney general.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mr. McLaughlin, I finally want to ask you, what about reports that members of the Obama administration left essentially an intelligence trail of bread crumbs or made sure that certain matters were at different levels of clearance, so that they could be accessed later on?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Yes, I have heard that reporting.

Of course, we don’t know from the reporting precisely what they were leaving, the nature of the reports, other than the allegation by, I guess, anonymous sources again that they somehow showed a relationship between campaign officials of Trump’s campaign and the Russians.

I think what the Obama administration was doing here is, I don’t think they had come — this is my view — I don’t think they had come to a firm conclusion that there was complicity, but they saw enough to raise the question in their mind and to convince them that some further investigation was required.

And I suspect they believed, once again in that context that I described, that, should Trump be elected, someone would have an impulse to not pursue this. So, I think they were just trying the guarantee that it would continue to be pursued.

HARI SREENIVASAN: John McLaughlin, Michael Mukasey, thank you both.

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