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David Cay Johnston: As Jeff Sessions Scandal Brews, We Need a Public Probe of Trump’s Ties to Russia

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The Trump administration is facing a new scandal as the Justice Department has acknowledged Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. This contradicts sworn testimony Sessions gave to Congress. During his confirmation hearing in January, then-Senator Sessions was asked by Minnesota Senator Al Franken whether he knew of contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russia’s government. Sessions replied, “I did not have communications with the Russians.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday accused Sessions of “apparent perjury” and said in a statement, “Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign.” Earlier today, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz called on Sessions to recuse himself from a Justice Department probe into alleged ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia’s government. We speak to David Cay Johnston, the author of “The Making of Donald Trump.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Trump administration is facing a new scandal as the Justice Department has acknowledged Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. This contradicts Sessions’ sworn testimony to Congress. During his confirmation hearing in January, then-Senator Sessions was asked by Minnesota Senator Al Franken whether he knew of contacts between Trump campaign surrogates and Russia’s government.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: 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?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: 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—not have communications with the Russians.

AMY GOODMAN: The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Sessions twice met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak: in July on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention and in September in Sessions’ office on Capitol Hill. And The Wall Street Journal reports that federal investigators are probing Sessions’ contacts with Russian officials.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi Wednesday accused Sessions of “apparent perjury” and said in a statement, quote, “Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign,” unquote. Joining the call was Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the House Oversight Committee. Many top Democrats are calling for a special prosecutor to investigate ties between top Trump officials and Russia’s government. At least one top Republican senator said Wednesday he is open to the idea. This is South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham speaking on CNN.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: It is clear to me that Jeff Sessions, who is my dear friend, cannot make this decision about Trump. So they may be not—there may be nothing there, but if there’s something there that the FBI believes is criminal in nature, then, for sure, you need a special prosecutor.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions briefly spoke with an NBC reporter.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Well, 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. And I don’t have anything else to say about that. So, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. David Cay Johnston is the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter formerly with The New York Times. He’s author of the book The Making of Donald Trump. He is the founder and editor of the Also with us is economist and lawyer James Henry, who has investigated Trump’s ties to Russia. His most recent report is titled “Another Cabinet Pick with Secret Ties to Putin and Oligarchs.” He’s talking about Wilbur Ross.

But I want to turn first to David Cay Johnston. So much has been revealed in the last 24 hours, David, both by The Washington Post and The New York Times. Can you talk about the significance of these revelations?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, their significance is that it shows how we have to have an open, public investigation of Donald Trump. And to paraphrase Richard Nixon, people have got to know that their president is not a traitor. The Intelligence Committee chairman in the House, Representative Nunes, has already said, “Well, I haven’t seen anything. I haven’t seen anything.” Of course, he hasn’t started his investigation. But we don’t need to have the intelligence committees, which meet in secret, investigate this, and we don’t need a special prosecutor.

What we need is a public investigation, beginning with getting Donald Trump’s tax returns, not only the ones that he—the IRS has in its possession and that they can subpoena from Trump, if he hasn’t destroyed them, but also those that he’s had to produce in litigation around the country; have the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation review those, so that we know how much money Trump got from the Russians, which Russians, who he’s paid interest to, who he has business partnerships with. And notice how desperate Donald Trump is to make sure we do not investigate this, how Jeff Sessions tries to blow off the fact that he spoke to the Russian ambassador, and yet, twice, in a hearing and then in a letter, said he had had no contact with the Russians, when he was, by his own account, a surrogate for the Trump campaign. This is very, very important, Amy, and we really need to make sure there is an open, public investigation and this is not swept under the Intelligence Committee rug.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about what Attorney General Sessions said. He said as a surrogate for the Trump campaign. He was clearly making a distinction between that and being a senator. But The Washington Post polled 19 of the 26 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which he serves, and none of them said that they had met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, David.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, yes. And I think it’s very significant that he was later asked, in writing, another question, and his answer was one word: “No.” Jeff Sessions is an experienced politician. He has been masterful at obscuring his racist conduct and attitudes. That’s how he got all the way to attorney general. And here, he has shown, at a minimum, at an absolute minimum, that he cannot have anything to do with the investigation of Donald Trump. He was the first senator to back Donald Trump. He has made it clear that he doesn’t think there’s anything here. And so, he has to recuse himself, at an absolute minimum, from any involvement.

What Donald Trump wants first and foremost here, Amy, is to make sure there is not a proper investigation. And Donald Trump, who I’ve known nearly 30 years, has a long history of compromising the FBI, compromising grand juries, compromising the Federal Office of Ethics, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, so that investigations of him are not properly done. People really need to make sure and demand that we have an open, public, bipartisan, no-holds-barred investigation. And it starts with review of Donald Trump’s tax returns, which Congress has the right to see under a 1920s law.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Senator Jeff Sessions speaking in 1999, when he backed the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: As a former federal prosecutor for 12 years, attorney general for two years, I know and believe very deeply in the rule of law, in the fact that honest and—testimony is required if we’re to have justice in America. So the problem is not the personal conduct. People on both sides of the aisle have failed in their dedication to their families over and over again. We know that to be true. But the fact is that we’re dealing and wrestling with allegations that suggest perjury or obstruction of justice. The president has a full and should be given a full opportunity to respond to that, but, fundamentally, we’re going to have to wrestle with that, and that issue will not go away.

AMY GOODMAN: There is Senator Sessions talking about perjury and obstruction of justice. The significance of this, David Cay Johnston?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, in the case of Donald Trump, keep in mind, Donald Trump lies as easily as you and I breathe. He is, by becoming president of the United States, the number one con artist in the history of the world. He has spent his entire adult life deeply in the embrace of violent felons, Russian mobsters, American mobsters, assorted swindlers and crooks. He has cheated his own workers out of their pay. He has cheated small business people out of their fees. He has swindled investors in properties that were branded with the Trump name. And so, it’s absolutely critical to understand that you can’t rely on anything that Donald Trump says as president of the United States, but especially when he knows that he’s got stuff in his closet to hide.

Now, my colleague Jim Henry, who wrote his report for DCReport, my nonprofit news organization, has spent a lot of time digging into the Russian connections here, and they are vast, deep. They go back more than 30 years. And an important element to understand about why this matters with the Russians, who are the Russian oligarchs? They are a state-sponsored network of international criminals. And Donald Trump has had so many involvements with them, involving the Trump SoHo hotel, the sale of property and other things Jim can talk about. And then we get Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, who is in bed with these guys right up to his eyeballs.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, we’re going to talk about all of that in a moment. David Cay Johnston with us from Rochester, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, author of The Making of Donald Trump. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with him and Jim Henry in a moment.

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