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EDITORIAL: Bad examples from DOJ
Talk about a day late and a dollar short.
The Department of Justice finally got around last week to responding to a Freedom of Information request regarding a security form filled out by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Coming 24 hours after a judge’s deadline, the release consisted of a single page that contradicts the attorney general’s known actions.
Is there no one in this administration who can give a straight answer?
The watchdog group American Oversight petitioned to see a section of Sessions' security clearance form. The single, redacted page included a question asking whether he had “any contact with a foreign government” during the past seven years. Sessions checked the box marked “no.”
This answer is consistent with testimony he gave during his Senate confirmation hearings in January. Unfortunately, both the answer and the testimony are inconsistent with reality.
Sessions subsequently acknowledged meeting in July and September of last year with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.
His excuse is that he confabbed not as an adviser to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump (which he was), but in his capacity as a senator (which he also was).
That’s convenient. And conclusive, if Sessions’ word is all the proof one requires. But it is not — not when questions continue to swirl around exactly what was the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russian interests.
Yes, some U.S. officials say federal lawmakers are often advised they need not document such meetings when held in their official capacity. But lawmakers, by and large, are not also advising presidential campaigns.
Security experts, meanwhile, argue that it’s better to err on the side of transparency. Unfortunately, transparency is not a strong suit of this administration, Sessions included.
For example, just days before the DOJ document was released last week, Sessions spoke to a conservative Christian organization, the Alliance Defending Freedom. The DOJ refused to provide a transcript of Sessions’ remarks.
This was perhaps because the ADF is known for its opposition to LGBTQ causes and has been defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. Understandably, such background amplified curiosity as to what the nation’s top law enforcement had to say.
Tough luck, said the DOJ (we’re paraphrasing).
(A conservative website finally did release a transcript. Sessions thanked the members for their battle to defend religious freedom and vowed his department would “never allow this secular government of ours to demand that sincere religious beliefs be abandoned.” Dispiriting comments to those who support tolerance, but by no means controversial to the point of keeping them hidden.)
That Sessions, the DOJ and the administration continue to operate from a place of secrecy raises real questions and concerns — particularly when it comes to Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential election.
Remember, it wasn’t just Sessions who was not forthcoming about meeting with Russian operatives during a time, we now know, at which they were moving aggressively to tilt the election. Presidential adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, onetime Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn also face questions about questionable — and, initially undisclosed — dealings with Russian interests.
As attorney general, Sessions is supposed to be above such shenanigans, not enmeshed in them. He is to be the nation’s top cop, not the president’s wingman.
Legalistic maneuvering about meetings with foreign diplomats and efforts to cloak in secrecy speeches to controversial organizations do not instill confidence in the agenda or allegiance to transparency held by the Department of Justice or its leader.