Editorial Board

Jeff Sessions, Recuse Yourself

The attorney general may have done nothing wrong. But appearances matter.


Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

When Senator Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general, spoke twice with a Russian envoy last year, it's likely that nothing nefarious was discussed. When Sessions later asserted, under oath, that "I did not have communications with the Russians," it's entirely possible that he forgot about the contacts or considered them irrelevant. And it's plausible, finally, that a federal probe into the matter will turn up nothing at all.

And yet. Appearances matter, in politics as in life. As the head of the Justice Department, Sessions is responsible for overseeing at least one federal investigation into Russia's efforts to sway the 2016 election, and into links between the Russian government and associates of President Donald Trump. Under any normal administration, that would look terrible. Under this one, it should be disqualifying.

The reason is simple: Trump and his associates have disregarded the truth so often and so blatantly -- about big things and small things, about what they have done and what they have failed to do -- that they shouldn't be given the benefit of the doubt here.

Most Democrats and even some Republicans now seem disinclined to give it to Sessions. He was an ardent supporter of Trump during the campaign and is now his political appointee. Even if his contacts with the Russian diplomat were benign, the relevant statute states that Justice Department employees should be disqualified from an investigation in the case of "political conflict of interest, or the appearance thereof."

Plainly, given appearances thereof, Sessions should recuse himself from any investigations of Trump's ties to Russia. That isn't the end of the matter, though.

The broader question of Russia's influence on the election is being investigated by the House and Senate intelligence committees. Those probes are being conducted in secret and their conclusions may never be made public. Worse, the Republican chairmen of both committees complied with a clumsy White House effort to rebut press accounts of -- perhaps you've guessed? -- Trump's ties to Russia.

It's now clear, if it wasn't before, that these probes are compromised, and that this matter would be better handled by an independent inquiry modeled on the Sept. 11 Commission. A bipartisan panel -- empowered to get classified information, conduct in-depth interviews and hold public hearings -- would have a much better chance of clearing up what happened, putting it all in the public record and ensuring that it isn't repeated.

And if, as the White House contends, the whole story is merely an elaborate "witch hunt," conducted by "fake news" organizations? Then it should welcome an independent investigation, which can put the questions to rest for good.