In my early days, as a hard news reporter operating within the norms of so-called journalistic “objectivity,” we pretty much never called anything a “lie.” You could point out that something was untrue, but how could you know it was a deliberate falsehood worthy of the “L” word? Furthermore, once an untruth was pointed out, public figures would usually stop repeating it, and the good ones would actually admit that they had said something that wasn’t quite right and maybe apologize.
That has changed, and the biggest source of recent change was Trumpism. Candidate Trump lied blatantly and frequently and seldom retracted or apologized.
He is perhaps trying to figure how much of the same mendacity he can get away with as president. But the norms by which journalism deals with lies and lesser levels of falsehoods have changed in reaction to this central feature of Trumpism.
So, nowadays, what constitutes a lie? A case study:
It’s good that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has decided to remove himself from any role in investigating connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. It would be even better if Sessions agreed that neither he nor anyone under his supervision should be involved in such an investigation.
That would require an outside investigator from completely outside of Trump campaign circles or Republican circles, someone with a non-partisan profile, and unquestioned integrity, and someone with full power to compel sworn testimony and do whatever was necessary – not just to find out whether Sessions was part of some improper Trump-Russia scheme, but to investigate whether anyone connected with Trump or his campaign was colluding with Russia in any way connected to the campaign.
The reasons for that are obvious. But for the moment, in the interest of keeping things on the straight and narrow, I’m troubled by the willingness of many figures in this controversy to adopt a mushy vocabulary about Sessions’ falsifying during his confirmation process. So let’s focus on that for a second.
A lot of stories I’m seeing suggest that Sessions’ statements about this matter may have been “misleading.” They were not misleading. By my lights, at least what Sessions said to Minnesota Sen. Al Franken was false, and probably deserves to be called a lie. To me, it’s not really a close call. You decide:
The short version: Under oath, Sessions said: “I did not have communications with the Russians.”
He now admits he did have meetings with the Russian ambassador. How is his sworn statement — “I did not have communications with the Russians”— not a lie but only “misleading?”
The medium-long version: So you can decide for yourself, the exchange went like this:
Franken: “CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, ‘Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.’ These documents also allegedly say quote, ‘There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for 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?”
Sessions: “Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
Does that change anything from the short version? What? Sessions went out of his way, in his answer, to help Franken out by acknowledging that he could reasonably be classified as a Trump surrogate, which is undeniable anyway, considering his role in the campaign. And I don’t believe he would have much luck arguing that a meeting with the Russian ambassador to the United States doesn’t constitute “having communication with the Russians.”
And it is undeniable that Sessions was a Trump surrogate during the time frame of his meetings with the Russian ambassador. I don’t know in what La-La Land his statement: “I did not have communications with the Russians,” is not a falsehood and a serious one considering the larger Russian-Trumpist connection.
In fact, Sessions obviously committed a much bigger and more serious falsehood because his meetings with the Russian ambassador occurred at a time when he was a Trump campaign surrogate. That precludes the possible excuse that, although he had had meetings with the Russians, they were so far in the past as to be irrelevant to Franken’s question, which at bottom is about the possibility that the Trumpeters were in collusion with the Russians to bring about what both sides wanted and got: A Trump presidency.
The last, most attenuated version of Sessions-didn’t-lie goes like this: When Sessions said he didn’t “communicate with” Russians, he meant that he did communicate with Russians, but of course he did. No scandal there. He’s a U.S. Senator with a role to play in geopolitics. And he had such communications during a period when he was reasonably viewed as a surrogate for the Trump campaign. Perhaps what Sessions meant when he gave his excuses was that he had never discussed anything with the Russians that was relevant to anything in the Trump universe. And he could hope that some people would take this assurance seriously. But the trouble is, they would have to take his, or the Russian ambassador’s word for it, which is a heavy lift.
I don’t much buy it. Sessions could easily have said, and should have said to Franken, if he wasn’t interested in lying:
Sen. Franken, I guess I’m what some people would have considered a Trump surrogate during the campaign. And I did have some meetings with the Russian ambassador last year, during the campaign. But we didn’t discuss anything relating to the campaign, and I was at those meetings not in my capacity as a Trump surrogate, but in my capacity as a senator, as I have met with many foreign officials during my Senate years.
In retrospect, given my relationship to the Trump campaign, perhaps I shouldn’t have gone to that meeting. And right this minute I wish I hadn’t. But I’ll have to ask you to take my word for it that nothing that occurred in those meetings had anything to do with the campaign or my capacity as a Trump surrogate.
And furthermore, now that I’m President-elect Trump’s nominee for attorney general, I will pledge to the Senate and the American people today that, if I am confirmed, I will recuse myself from any activity relating to Russia and refer such matters to someone with no connection to the Trump campaign.
Maybe that would have been a lie, too, depending on what actually happened at those 2016 meetings between a Russian official and a Trump surrogate. And maybe we’ll never find out. All we know now is that he didn’t say that to Franken. And to excuse his falsehood as merely “misleading” is a tad, um “misleading.”
Afterthought: After I wrote this, I saw a lot of pieces and even satire on television making the same points about Sessions performance on this matter. FactCheck.org, which I respect greatly, did a workup in which they decided to take no position on whether sessions had “lied.” They talked to a former prosecutor, now a law professor and an expert on the actual crime of perjury. That fellow, Randall Eliason, said it would be awfully difficult to actually win a criminal conviction against Sessions for perjury unless there was additional evidence showing that Sessions understood that he was knowingly and intentionally lying when he gave his answer to Franken. That’s a high bar, and I’m not advocating that Sessions should face criminal prosecution. To me, the self-inflicted damage to his reputation is punishment enough. Here’s the FactCheck workup.