You can tell how much trouble a Washington politician is in by how forcefully his (or her) allies push back in the immediate aftermath of a bombshell negative story. By that measure, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is in big, big trouble.
In the 12-ish hours since The Post published a story that details two conversations Sessions had with the Russian ambassador to the United States, discussions that run directly counter to statements the then-Alabama senator made during his confirmation hearings, the defense of Sessions has been weak. And that’s being kind.
Sessions himself — as expertly documented here by Aaron Blake — is responding by not really responding, setting up a straw man and then knocking it down with no real effect. “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss the issues of the campaign,” Sessions said in a statement released through a spokesman. That is a denial — just not of what The Post is reporting, which is simply that Sessions met with Sergey Kislyak twice in 2016 despite insisting he had no contact with Russia over that time.
Other leading Republicans were very hesitant to put themselves anywhere near Sessions’s side on this. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, tweetedThursday morning that Sessions must recuse himself from the ongoing FBI investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election and “clarify” his testimony to the Judiciary Committee. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has also called for Sessions to recuse himself. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a 2016 presidential candidate, went a step further.
Then there are the Democrats. The top Democrats in the Senate (Charles E. Schumer) and the House (Nancy Pelosi) both called for Sessions to resign and for a special counsel to be convened to offer a totally independent review of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian intelligence officials. Dozens of rank and file Democrats have done the same.
Democratic calls for his head are survivable for Sessions — in a vacuum. Dismiss them — as the White House and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas have done — as nothing more than partisan posturing and move on. The problem for Sessions is that even as Democrats are massing against him, Republican allies are few and far between. One side is trying to push him over the cliff; the other side is shuffling away, trying to avoid making eye contact with him as he calls “Guys? GUYS!?!”
Remember that the first rule of politics is survival. Every politician — or at least the ones who last — get up every morning, read the news and think about potential threats to their professional well-being. The fact that Sessions didn’t tell the truth — whether he forgot the truth or purposely obfuscated is up for discussion — about his contacts with the Russian ambassador in 2016 is a very tough one to defend. And politicians tend not to hunker down in politically indefensible positions.
The best hope Sessions has in all of this is his close relationship with President Trump. Sessions was among the earliest endorsers of Trump’s presidential bid and has been a member of the inner circle almost since Trump began running back in June 2015. Trump prizes loyalty above all else and loathes the demand for scapegoats that he believes the media provokes in situations like this.
But, Trump also hates when people who work for him get bad press — particularly on a day like Wednesday, which was, without question, Trump’s best press day since he was sworn in. And, as Trump’s eventual decision to fire national security adviser Michael Flynn — also over lack of truth regarding Russian contacts! — suggests, loyalty has its limits with Trump.
If Sessions’s response on Thursday morning was the best that he can offer to defend himself, you can expect that the few people sticking up for him right now will dwindle to his immediate family sometime very soon. And when you lose your friends while under heavy fire from your opponents in political Washington, it’s almost always curtains.