Politics

Did U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Commit Perjury?

On Tuesday night, the Washington Post revealed that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had multiple contacts with Russia's ambassador to the United States during the throes of Russia's attempt to influence the 2016 election.

Sessions was asked under oath during his confirmation hearings in January what he would do if he learned that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government. He replied that he was unaware of any such contact, and that he had not had "communications with the Russians" during his time as a campaign surrogate.

In answering thusly, many Congressional figures and pundits believe Sessions committed the crime of perjury - with many calling for him to recuse himself or resign.

Perjury is defined as the offense of willfully lying after having taken an oath, and is a felony under federal law. But as journalist Adam Serwer points out in The Atlantic, "perjury is notoriously hard to prove, because it requires the subject to have knowingly [lied], not to have answered incorrectly."

"From the statements that I've seen, I don't see how it could be shown that [Sessions] knowingly lied; the questions are too ambiguous," Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School told ATTN: via email.

Sessions' staff claimed in the Post that the September meeting was in the capacity of his role on the Armed Services Committee.

"I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign and those remarks are unbelievable to me and are false," Sessions said Thursday to MSNBC.

The issue of what constituted perjury and how to punish it consumed American politics when former President Bill Clinton was investigated for the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1999, and eventually impeached for lying under oath. At issue was the question of whether Clinton could be charged with a crime - and if so, would he be?

In a 1998 story for the Baltimore Sun, the paper reached out to a number of legal experts and "none [...] could cite a case in which a witness who had lied under oath in a civil case had been prosecuted for perjury in criminal court."

Legendary jurist Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr. told the Sun that "distortions that can be interpreted as falsehoods are fairly common in depositions. It's just part of the unfortunate grist of depositions." At the same time, legal ethics expert Paul Robinson said that proving perjury took place is usually so difficult that prosecutors don't bother trying.

It was during this time that Sessions said on CSPAN in a 1999 video about perjury during Clinton's impeachment that "there are serious allegations that occurred and in America, the Supreme Court and the American people believe that no one is above the law."

The Huffington Post reports, "Sessions also voted 'guilty' on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice during Clinton’s impeachment trial."

Section 1621 of Title 18 of federal law prohibits individuals from lying to Congress while under oath, providing stiff penalties for those who do. However, more recent cases prove how hard it is to hold those who testify before Congress to this standard.

Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner, former CIA director Michael Hayden were both found to have misled Congress during sworn testimony. But neither were prosecuted. In fact, an analysis by a law professor found just six perjury convictions due to false Congressional testimony going back to the 1940s - most famously, two Nixon Administration officials who served time for perjury after the Watergate scandal.

But Sessions wasn't giving a deposition, nor was he accused of a crime. He was answering a question at his own confirmation hearing. As such, there's almost no precedent for either prosecuting or punishing him.

However, that doesn't mean Sessions is out of the woods yet, according to Columbia Law School's Jennifer Rodgers.

"Hypothetically under a different set of questions and answers that were entirely clear," Rodgers told ATTN:, "such as a question asking whether Sessions in any official capacity at all, whether as a Senator or as an affiliate or supporter of the Trump campaign or administration, had any verbal or written contact with Russian officials in the year 2016, to which he answered no, if it could be proven that this was factually false, I would expect that charges would be brought."