Juliette Kayyem: Sessions' recusal is latest signal that Trump can't 'pivot' from the investigation into Russia's meddling
She says don't expect 'smoking gun' -- complex probe will confront twists in search for answers. Trump should welcome this
Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
There is no political pivot away from the Russia story.
Indeed, even as the suddenly “presidential” Donald Trump was basking in acclaim Wednesday for his uncharacteristically measured speech Tuesday night before the joint session of Congress, “Russiagate” was gearing up again.
And by Thursday, under intense political pressure over his meeting with Russia’s ambassador, Attorney General Jeff Sessions agreed to recuse himself from any investigation related to the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia in the 2016 election.
The Trump administration has for too long believed that by not talking about the Russia issue, by ducking and pivoting, they could make it go away. But investigations are going forward. The media won’t let this go, the public won’t let this go, and if the Trump administration insists that it did not collude with Russia to affect the election outcome, it too will not want to let this go until the truth has been brought thoroughly into the light and the American public reassured.
Allow me to catch you up.
Only a few weeks after former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned amid revelations about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, leaks from an inquiry related to Russia’s disruption of the election – and confirmed by the Justice Department – revealed that Sessions had misinformed (or possibly lied to) senators during his confirmation hearing about meetings he had had with Kislyak.
Democratic leaders demanded Sessions resign and many Republicans wanted him to at least recuse himself from any oversight of investigations related to Russia’s interference.
Sessions, meanwhile, finally admitted to the meetings but insisted that nothing related to the campaign was discussed – and Russia, for its part, claimed it was all “fake news.”
The White House? It has tried to distance itself from the rancor and drama involving yet another senior campaign adviser (and cabinet member) obfuscating about conversations with Russia. Trump says he knew nothing of Sessions’ conversations and backed his AG, saying he didn’t think Sessions needed to resign.
And now, new reports indicate contacts in December between other Trump advisers – including his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner – with the Russian ambassador. On Thursday night, Trump turned to Twitter, where he called it all a “total witch hunt.”
Head spinning? Yes. But as far as national security investigations go, not unexpected in its twists and stutter-stop momentum.
In fact, with the stakes as high as they are, it’s essential to understand how these investigations advance. They will not unfold like a television show. There will likely not be some moment of reckoning – some smoking gun – an email that makes it all clear, a “eureka” occasion. National security investigations are rarely that simple.
Instead of a single piece of evidence, a case like this involves foreign wiretaps, spies and counterspies, signal intelligence, telephone wiretaps and cyber-footprints. It’s complicated mostly because the crime is so much more sophisticated. There may not be a smoking gun, but there is a lot of evidence and counter-evidence that will swing the pendulum back and forth until it lands at the truth.
In other words, think of this investigation as a search for the most plausible answer – across a spectrum – to the question: Why did Russia involve itself so aggressively in our election? The “what” is already known: Every intelligence agency has confirmed that Russia engaged in a cyber-attack on America’s democratic process, aimed at negatively impacting the Hillary Clinton campaign.
But the “why” is more complicated, and that is why there are number of investigations – some at the FBI, some on Capitol Hill – occurring simultaneously.
The possible theories to answer this exist on that spectrum. At one end is the possibility that Russia acted entirely alone to disrupt our democracy and undermine Clinton, believing she would otherwise win.
Move further along the spectrum and other explanations arise: Russia did it alone to help Trump, as they believed he would be a more cooperative President; Russia acted in partnership with a loose group of Trump affiliates who did not speak to or work for the campaign; Russia worked directly with the campaign leadership. And, finally, at other end of the spectrum, the most consequential theory: Russia colluded with the direct knowledge of the President.
Every disclosure and action is a piece of evidence that cuts one way or another across this spectrum of potential explanations. For example, the decision by Flynn to not disclose his contacts with Russia to Vice President Mike Pence suggests that senior members of the campaign were not transparent in their dealings – even with one another.
It’s another piece of evidence: no smoking gun, but not entirely a benign piece of information either.
Even as these pieces keep piling up, the Trump administration seems unable to recognize that until it embraces a thorough and impartial review, the pieces will be viewed in the light least favorable to them.
It is, from any evidentiary perspective, difficult to say that the accumulation of all this information – including another important story in the New York Times reporting that European surveillance picked up communications between Russia and the Trump team – points toward the idea that Russia acted entirely alone.
Determining where the pendulum stops is why these investigations must move forward. No one, maybe not even the investigators, can know right now where this ends. No smoking gun, perhaps. Only a lot of pieces of a puzzle that need to put together to come up with a better picture of why our democracy was undermined.