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Trump, Russia and the Limits of Misdirection

E.J. DIONNE JR. on

WASHINGTON -- Donald Trump shows us what happens when a healthy skepticism about politics gives way to a debilitating cynicism.

If democratic citizens come to see all politicians as liars, then lying can become the new norm. And those who regard their domestic political opponents as the greatest threat to the nation have little problem welcoming a foreign power’s help in defeating them.

A combination of promiscuous dishonesty and an unseemly warmth toward a despotic regime may bring the Trump Experiment to a tipping point far sooner than even his most ardent critics expected.

The Russia scandal could engulf Trump’s presidency because those in his orbit who engaged with Moscow stuck with lies and misdirection until their falsehoods were publicly revealed and their positions were no longer tenable. The truth had to be dragged out of them by the media, working in concert with civil servants (aka “leakers”) who refuse to sit by while the system they serve is endangered.

No wonder Trump hates those leakers and the press. With so many Republicans in Congress prepared to abandon everything they said about accountability before Jan. 20, 2017, journalists and those who supply them with information, as well as some courageous judges, provide the main lines of defense against executive abuses.

The Washington Post’s revelation last week that Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled the Senate about his two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak came after Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, lied about the nature of his own Russian contacts. Flynn stuck to false claims about his conversations with Kislyak until the Post and other media blew them out of the water. Flynn had to resign.

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Sessions’ convenient memory lapse was especially jarring because it came after an inquiry from Sen. Al Franken, in which the Minnesota Democrat did not even ask Sessions whether he met with Russians.

Franken’s query ended this way: “... 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 replied: “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.” Why did Sessions think he had to respond to a question that wasn’t even posed?

And during his news conference announcing at least a partial recusal from investigations into the Russia connection, Sessions remembered many things about what Kislyak had said, but used the phrase “I don’t recall” five times -- twice about the content of a Kislyak meeting in his Senate office, twice about whether he had met with Kislyak before, and once after an exchange about Russian interference in our elections.

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