Despite the ubiquity of the word these days, Attorney General Jeff Sessions hasn't been proven a liar. A close reading of what Sessions said, what he was asked, and what he did leaves open the possibility that his denials about Russian liaisons were accurate in a narrow sense.
But "accurate in a narrow sense" is another way of saying "incomplete." Sessions should have been far more forthcoming when asked about contacts with Russia.
Briefly, here are the relevant facts: Sessions spoke during the Republican National Convention to a few dozen ambassadors whom the Heritage Foundation had brought to Cleveland. Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak was in the group and was in a small group of ambassadors who spoke with Sessions after the event. It was a "very brief" conversation, Sessions said in his press conference Thursday.
Sessions and Kislyak met in Sessions' Senate office Sept. 8. The administration has said it's possible politics came up because, as NBC's John Harwood quoted one administration official: "Ambassadors would often make superficial comments about election-related news. [N]ot substance of discussion."
Sessions said Thursday afternoon the meeting covered issues like Crimea and got "testy" at times.
During Sessions' confirmation hearing, in the context of Russian meddling in the election, Democratic senators repeatedly asked Sessions about meetings with Russians.
Sen. Al Franken cited a CNN report about an alleged "continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government," and asked "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' response: "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 did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it.
Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Sessions in writing, "Have been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election…?"
Sessions replied "No."
These answers made it surprising when we learned Wednesday night about Sessions' meetings with Kislyak. But Sessions has a plausible defense. He answered both questions with an eye to campaign contacts, and he saw neither of his meetings as campaign contacts.
This is why former federal prosecutors have said they don't see sufficient evidence to charge Sessions with perjury. This seems fairly obvious. It's why liberal legal scholar Benjamin Wittes stated flatly, "This almost certainly IS NOT perjury. Stop imputing criminal conduct prematurely… To be perjury: it not merely has to be false, it [needs] to be clearly [and] unambiguously false—and there is enough ambiguity."
Containing "enough ambiguity" and being non-prosecutable, however, sets the bar too low for cabinet members, who should aim to be clear in their public statements about a serious issue such as Russia meddling in our elections.
If the innocent interpretation of the facts is true, Sessions should simply have answered Franken "I met with Russia's ambassador twice, once briefly at the RNC and once in my office. The campaign came up in passing, but only barely. We certainly never coordinated nor discussed strategy."
"In retrospect," Sessions said as he finished hs press conference, "I should've slowed down and said I did meet with a Russian official a couple of times."
Instead, he gave the Senate answers that concealed his meetings, whether through absent-mindedness or through lawyerly parsing. This was a mistake, politically and morally.
Politically, it was obviously a mistake. Now that Sessions' contacts with Kislyak have become public, he's being pursued with demands for his resignation. And Sessions' announcement today that he would, appropriately, recuse himself from any investigation into the campaign now looks like the guilty move of a politician who got caught.
Republican lawmakers are being buttonholed by reporters asking about a resignation. Sessions' defenders are left with the lame-sounding argument of "sure, he wasn't forthcoming, but you can't prove he was lying."
There's a deeper point here than the politics, though. Failing to disclose these meetings was failing to be forthright. Even if Sessions thought the meetings were not pertinent to the inquiry, they were relevant enough that he owed it to the Senate and to the public to disclose the meetings. If he simply forgot at the moment, he should have provided the Senate with the complete answer right away, through a public letter.
In other words, Sessions' throwaway comments at the end of the press conference — "In retrospect, I should've slowed down and said I did meet with a Russian official a couple of times" — are the core issue here.
Public officials owe it to the public to be fully forthright. We shouldn't have to work hard to parse the questions and answers of our leaders. Our leaders should give us a full picture.
Sessions didn't give us that full picture until he got caught.