By: Houston Criminal Defense Lawyers John T. Floyd and Chris Choate
Could U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III be on the fast track to one of those federal prisons he has been trying to fill since becoming attorney general?
The last U.S. Attorney General sent to prison was John Mitchell who served as President Richard Nixon’s attorney general between 1969 and 1972. Mitchell was sentenced to two-and-one-half years to eight years in prison in February 1975 after being convicted for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury for his role in the Nixon “Watergate Scandal.” His sentence was reduced shortly afterwards to one to four years by the federal judge who imposed the original sentence. Mitchell ultimately served 19 months before being released on a medical parole. (Parole has subsequently been terminated in the federal judicial system. The only time-based leniency now afforded to federal inmates is credit for good behavior, currently capped at a 15% reduction in one’s sentence.)
False Statements to Congress
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has lied to Congress, not to mention the public, as information about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its assistance to the Trump campaign has unfolded.
Sessions joined the Trump campaign on March 3, 2016 as chairman of the presidential candidate’s national security advisory committee. As the first U.S. Senator to endorse Trump’s bid for the White House, Sessions rose to prominence in the campaign, often appearing as a talking head on the media circuit to peddle Trump campaign slogans and talking points.
During his January 10, 2017 confirmation hearing, Sessions responded to a question posed by Sen. Al Franken question about what he would do as attorney general if it was established that officials in the Trump campaign has communicated with the Russians. Sessions responded that he was not aware of any such communications and that he personally had not had any such communications.
Categorical Denial Haunts AG Sessions
This categorical denial position was reaffirmed by Sessions on January 17, 2017 in response to written questions submitted to him by Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Two months later, on March 1, the Washington Post reported that Sessions had indeed had communications with Russians in July 2016 during a small diplomatic conference with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Two months later the then-Senator Sessions took a meeting with Kislyak in the senator’s office on Capitol Hill.
The day after this news broke, Sessions formally recused himself from any investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The attorney general immediately tried to clean up his deliberate misrepresentations to Congress during his confirmation process by saying, “Let me be clear, I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.” In classic CYA fashion, Sessions claims that it was not his “intent” to lie to Congress.
False Statements: Federal Felony Carries 5 Years in Fed Prison
As Sessions is well aware, knowingly or willfully making false statements about material facts (or concealing material facts) to Congress in the context of a Congressional investigation is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Knowing this, however, has not prevented Sessions from being less than candid with Congress. On March 6, 2017, Sessions submitted supplementary written testimony to Congress, informing senators that he had not mentioned the Kislyak interactions because he had not been asked about them. The attorney general said he could not “recall” any “discussions” with Kislyak or any other Russian representative about the 2016 presidential campaign.
In late May 2017, CNN broke the story that Sessions had failed to disclose his 2016 meetings with Kislyak on his application for a national security clearance. That application specifically requires disclosure by the applicant of any contact with a foreign government during the previous seven years. This prerequisite for national security clearance does not permit belated “don’t recall” or “can’t remember” explanations by applicants who fail to disclose previous foreign government contacts.
In response to the CNN report, a Justice Department spokesman emphatically denied that the attorney general had ever had any “private” meetings with Russian officials.
Third Undisclosed Meeting with Russian Ambassador
In a June 8, 2017 appearance before Congress, former FBI Director James Comey refuted Sessions’ denials by telling the Senate Intelligence Committee that the attorney general may have had a third, undisclosed meeting with Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. in April 2016.
Because GOP Congressional leadership appears vitally interested in providing Administration officials with ample opportunity to escape responsibility for misleading the Legislative Branch—his former colleagues, it should be noted—Attorney General Sessions was called back before Congress through the Senate Intelligence Committee to explain all these revelations.
In an opening statement for his June 13, 2017 appearance, Sessions unequivocally told the committee in prepared remarks that he had “never met or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election.”
Significantly, the attorney general directly and specifically told the committee that he had “no knowledge of any such conversation by anyone connected to the Trump campaign.”
The following month, July 21, the Washington Post reported that Kislyak had informed his Russian “superiors” that he had discussed important policies issues related to Russia with Sessions during the campaign. Kislyak’s reports to his superiors had been intercepted through U.S. intelligence surveillance.
In an October 18, 2017 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Sessions said he could not, and would not, disclose any private discussions he had had with the president concerning any Russian-related matters or any other matters. He said those discussions were “off limits.” Sessions refused to state that this refusal was based on the invocation of executive privilege, because it had pointedly not been invoked by the Administration. Without pressure from Congress to require an answer or face Contempt proceedings, however, Sessions’ non-answer answers remain, for now, empty.
Indictments Against Top Trump Campaign Officials
On October 30, 2017, Special Counsel Robert Mueller unsealed an indictment against a key Trump campaign foreign policy advisor named George Papadopoulos for lying to the FBI and the Justice Department.
In a plea deal reached with Mueller’s team, Papadopoulos, who was arrested last July, agreed to cooperate with the investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.
The written plea agreement between the government and Papadopoulos specifically cites a March 31, 2016 campaign meeting attended by Trump and chaired by Attorney General Sessions. The plea agreement explicitly states that Papadopoulos told Trump and Sessions, as well as the other attendees at the meeting, that “he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin.”
Plea Agreements Suggest Manafort Colluded to Conceal
The Papadopoulos plea agreement also states that Papadopoulos was encouraged to keep campaign officials apprised of his efforts to arrange such a meeting. In fact, a chief campaign advisor, believed to be Paul Manafort, told Papadopoulos to keep his contacts about a potential Trump/Putin meeting confined to a lower campaign official so as not to “send any signal” to prying eyes.
It is clear now that Attorney General Sessions had specific and direct information about Papadopoulos’s contacts with Russian officials willing to help the Trump campaign just weeks after he joined the Trump campaign as its chief foreign policy advisor.
This information seriously undercuts the attorney general’s previous explanations about his meetings and communications with Ambassador Kislyak. It is not known, nor has it been reported, whether Sessions has been interviewed by the Mueller investigative team about his litany of false statements to Congress and the public about Russian/Trump campaign interactions.
Disturbing Number of Trump Official, Advisors in Hot Water
What is known, however, is that a disturbingly high number of Trump acolytes have presented seriously troubling avenues of investigation, including: former national security advisor Michael Flynn; Flynn’s son Michael Flynn, Jr.; former campaign advisor Sam Clovis (who just removed himself from consideration for a position at USDA); former campaign chairman Paul Manafort; Trump’s son Donald Junior; Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner; former foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos; former foreign policy advisor Carter Page; and the Attorney General himself. All these individuals had communications and interactions with Russian officials and intermediaries who seemingly wanted to help Donald Trump be elected President of the United States through various methods and means. More troubling, this likely presents only a partial list of individuals who are compromised.
Despite having firsthand knowledge about some or all of these communications and interactions between the Trump campaign and the Russians before his confirmation appearance before Congress last January, Attorney General Sessions lied about his personal interactions with the Russians and lied about not knowing anyone who had communications or interactions with the Russians as evidenced by the Papadopoulos plea agreement.
Former Attorney General John Mitchell went to federal prison for lying about his role in the Watergate scandal. The same fate may—and perhaps should—befall Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.
Beauregard May Join Ranks of AGs to Go to Pen
One thing that is certain at this juncture: the nation’s criminal justice system simply cannot tolerate the Attorney General of the United States, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, lying before Congress about either a national security investigation or a criminal investigation.
Attorney General Sessions should resign because he lied to Congress and very well may be on a fast track to join the indicted ranks of Papadopoulos, Manafort, and Gates.