It is time for a modicum of political courage to be shown, this time by, of all people, the senator from Minnesota whose sole prior experience was as a comedy writer, analogous to that of Barack Obama before becoming a senator. OK, even less. And I will concede that Donald Trump had no greater experience than Franken had, but he at least had been dealing with those people, and actually had run something extensive.
We have all been following the whole teapot tempest in regard to the testimony of Attorney General Jeff Sessions at his Senate confirmation hearing. In response to a 47-second question by Franken, Sessions had declared that he had not met with any Russian officials during the campaign.
I watched the hearing live, and it was patently obvious that Franken's question -- "did you meet with any Russians", to shrink it to sane length -- was about Sessions' actions in regard to his position supporting the Trump campaign in 2016. Sessions himself smiled and said that he had been called a Trump surrogate during the campaign, and he had not met with any Russian officials then.
Since then, as we know, it has come out that Sessions did indeed meet with a Russian ambassador in his Senate office during that time. That meeting was associated with Sessions' position on the Senate Armed Services Committee, his actual job, at which time they discussed the situation in Ukraine, about which Sessions was, he recalls now, pretty firm with the ambassador and not pleased with his country.
So here is the context. That hearing, like all the confirmation hearings I heard, consisted of alternate-party senators making long speeches followed by almost-as-long questions directed at the nominee. If I were the nominee, I would start "spacing out" at the speeches, and have to return to reality when it seemed that the speaking senator got around to starting an actual question. Let's face it, they're not "How are you today" questions you can answer off the top of your head.
Context is important.
So with that setting, you have Franken introducing some brand-new reporting at the time of the question about someone saying something about how someone in the Trump campaign may have talked to a Russian. After that, he asks Sessions if he had talked to a Russian official. In that context, I assumed, correctly, that he were asking about Sessions' actions in regard to his work with the Trump campaign, not as a senator on the Armed Services Committee.
Apparently, Sessions did, too, and said he had not met with Russians. Franken did not follow up and ask "Well, how about in your capacity as a Senator?", and without the conversation leaving the context of the campaign, it clearly -- and reasonably -- did not occur to Sessions to have mentioned any meetings with the Russian ambassador as part of his committee work in the Senate.
So ... what is "political courage", I ask? I will happily offer a reasonable answer. It is political courage to do or say something that is truthful and accurate, but conflicts with the orthodoxy or the morning's talking points of one's political leadership.
Now I think the entire Russian-attack-on-the-election meme to be something slightly above the status of "nothing burger." They have tried to do something with our election process, but that's pretty much what they have been doing for decades. We do not know a single thing about whom they wanted to win (they tried to hack both parties' headquarters, but only succeeded with the weakly-secured Democrats). And we know of zero cases where the actual election was affected anywhere, in any way.
The Sessions thing is indeed a true nothing burger. He answered a rambling question in its context, which is quite evident when listening, painfully, to repeated replays of the question. It is accurate to say that Sessions could have added "But in my work on my Senate committee, I did meet with Russian officials on occasion." But it is equally likely not even to have occurred to him, given the contexts not only of the topic of the question but of the hearing itself, the way such questions are hard for the nominee to follow.
Let us have some political courage. Al Franken -- you need to be a human being, not a political beast. You need to say this:
"I am the senator who asked the question of Attorney General Sessions during the nomination hearing. I am the one who set the tenor of the question by citing a story that had just come out that hour in regard to whether or not any Trump campaign officials had met with Russian representatives. I know more than anyone how the question was posed and the context in which it was asked.
"It may not be the politically beneficial thing for me to say, but Attorney General Sessions' explanation this week, that he was replying in the context of the campaign and his position on it, is a perfectly acceptable statement. It is quite logical that he would not be thinking about his senatorial duties and meetings with Russian officials relative to his committee work, while answering my question.
"As an example, Senator McCaskill reacted immediately to the report and stated that as a committee member, she had never met with Russian officials, yet it turned out immediately that she had, and had simply forgotten it. Senators are busy people, who meet with many officials in the course of our duties.
"I believe that we should take the Attorney General at his word, and assume that he answered in good faith and in context, and I urge my fellow Democrats to grant that courtesy, as I am."
Now, that would be political courage. I'm not holding my breath.
Copyright 2017 by Robert Sutton
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