Debates: Russia Direct interviewed a number of experts to find out to what extent the suspicion surrounding U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is legitimate and justified.


Pictured: Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for Attorney General, being sworn in at his confirmation hearing on January 10, 2017. Photo: Office of the President-elect

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Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper does not find anything to suggest that Russia successfully interfered with the 2016 American election or recruited any of U.S. President Donald Trump’s advisers – at least as of Jan. 20, when Clapper left office.

"There was no evidence whatsoever, at the time, of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians," he told ABC News in an interview on Monday.

With a lot of speculations about Trump’s collusion with the Kremlin, the Clapper comments might not be the music to the ears of many American politicians and journalists who made Russia a number one topic in an attempt to find Moscow's trace behind Trump’s policymaking.

Ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions saw for themselves how polarized the political environment has become in Washington since Trump’s inauguration. While the former had to resign because he covered up important details of his phone talk with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the latter has to withstand numerous accusations in misinformation.

Sessions said that he had “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the [electoral] campaign,” but U.S. intelligence officials claim that he did communicate with Kislyak. This brought about suspicions toward the attorney general, nominated by Trump. Most Americans want Sessions to resign, according the Mar. 8 Quinnipiac University survey.

Ironically, Kislyak, who is supposed to build bridges between two nations, became a sort of a scapegoat for American journalists and politicians — a source of distrust. Oddly enough, but having a phone talk with him became a reason to raise eyebrows. As Bloomberg’s columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote, “the most obvious problem with meeting Kislyak ... is that he is perceived as toxic in Washington as Putin's representative."

While many Russian pundits describe the campaign against Sessions as “hysteria,” "the witch hunt" or the obsession with conspiracy theories, their Western counterparts highlight that the meeting with Kislyak is not the reason to launch a probe.  What brings about their suspicion is the fact that Sessions lied under oath during his confirmation hearing about his contacts with the Russians.

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But Clapper’s statement about the lack of evidence of Russia meddling in U.S. domestic policy might put both America's politicians and mainstream media in a vulnerable position, as a Matt Taibbi, an author of Rolling Stones, argues.

“Both the Democratic Party and many leading media outlets are making a dangerous gamble, betting their professional and political capital on the promise of future disclosures that may not come," he wrote, adding that the manner in which the stories about Russia are covered “is becoming a story in its own right. Russia has become an obsession, cultural shorthand for a vast range of suspicions about Donald Trump.”

Russia Direct interviewed a number of Russian and foreign experts to find out to what extent the suspicion toward Sessions and Kyslyak is legitimate and justified — and what the scandal reveals about U.S.-Russia relations today.

Mark Kramer, a professor and director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies

There are many reasons to oppose Sessions as attorney general — he has a long record of contempt for civil liberties, civil rights, and private property rights — but his contacts with Ambassador Kislyak are not at the top of the list. The controversy about this matter arises mainly because Sessions lied about it during his congressional testimony.

He was asked, both during his oral testimony and in the written follow-up questions, whether he had had contacts with Russian diplomats or officials in recent months. In both cases, Session responded that he had not, which we now know is untrue. Lying to Congress is a serious crime, punishable by a jail sentence. The reason Sessions should resign is not that he had contacts with Kislyak, but that he twice lied to Congress.

Andrei Tsygankov, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University

U.S.-Russia relations have become a hostage of partisan domestic politics. Democrats are trying their best to challenge Trump by discrediting his appointees. Sessions is the next selected target after Flynn.

Sessions’ only “fault” seems to have been that holds a prominent position in Trump’s cabinet and that he couldn’t recall about his meeting with Kysluak. The latter was simply doing his job of an Ambassador meeting the U.S. politicians, clarifying Russia’s position, and asking relevant questions.

The scandal is symptomatic of the current poisonous state of bilateral relations. Few Democrats care about improving ties with Russia, but they use it as convenient tool for derailing Trump. Russia remains a convenient scapegoat because, first, the Kremlin has challenged the U.S. worldview and possibly meddled in the US elections; second, Trump advocates normalization with the Kremlin; and, third, there are no pro-Russian constituencies to confront Democrats’ conspiracies.

James Carden, a contributing editor to The Nation and former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department

The latest in the long line of seemingly never-ending scandals with regard to the Trump administration and Russia is the current controversy over Sessions' meetings with Ambassador Kislyak. It seems to me that if there is any scandal at all it is that Sessions provided sloppy testimony during his confirmation hearing. The idea that it is somehow scandalous for U.S. officials — current, former or soon-to-be, to meet with the diplomatic corps of a foreign country is silly and should be dismissed out of hand.

And if we were operating within a normal political environment and not this neo-McCarthyte hothouse that is Trump's Washington, it would be. But, alas: the Democratic party and the U.S. mainstream media didn't get the result it so badly wanted in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, and so they have decided to embark on what amounts to a witch hunt for subversives instead of governing. That's their choice to make, I guess. History will judge if was the right one.

Gregory Feifer, a former correspondent of National Public Radio (NPR) and Radio Free Europe (RFE), the author of The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan and Russians: the People behind the Power

Meetings between U.S. campaign or transition officials and foreign ambassadors shouldn’t usually raise an eyebrow. The fact that Sessions and other close Trump advisers were holding them with Russian officials while an alleged Russian espionage plot was blowing up in public — and then sought to conceal the meetings — has raised justifiably serious questions about their nature.

Especially because Trump is seeking to capitalize on a bizarre bromance with Putin, implying a moral equivalence between the two governments when the Kremlin is openly attacking the Western liberal order by murdering innocent civilians in Syria and Ukraine, backing radical right-wing politicians across Europe and conducting propaganda and espionage campaigns aimed at undermining Western institutions and unity. And helping to get Trump elected — one of the many warnings that voting for him was utter madness.

What’s going on is evidence of a second cold war, with different nuances under different circumstances, shaped by the sensibilities of two leaders who use propaganda and fear to shape false and dangerous realities for their voters. By helping throw an American election in favor of a greedy, narcissistic, gaudy madman who will happily destroy the world along with his country in order to see his ratings rise, Moscow has deployed a political nuclear weapon.

Jack F. Matlock, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union (1987 – 1991)

Our press seems to be in a feeding frenzy regarding contacts that President Trump’s supporters had with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and with other Russian diplomats. The assumption seems to be that there was something sinister about these contacts, just because they were with Russian diplomats.

As one who spent a 35-year diplomatic career working to open up the Soviet Union and to make communication between our diplomats and ordinary citizens a normal practice, I find the attitude of much of our political establishment and of some of our once respected media outlets quite incomprehensible. What in the world is wrong with consulting a foreign embassy about ways to improve relations? Anyone who aspires to advise an American president should do just that.

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Ambassador Kislyak is a distinguished and very able diplomat. Anyone interested in improving relations with Russia and avoiding another nuclear arms race — which is a vital interest of the United States — should discuss current issues with him and members of his staff. To consider him “toxic” is ridiculous.  I don’t know whether Attorney General Sessions will resign or not. It would seem that his recusal from any investigation on the subject would be adequate. Nevertheless, I have no problem with the fact that he occasionally exchanged words with Ambassador Kislyak.

The whole brou-ha-ha over contacts with Russian diplomats has taken on all the earmarks of a witch hunt. I have been taught that in a democracy with the rule of law, the accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence until convicted. But we have leaks that imply that any conversation with a Russian embassy official is suspect. That is the attitude of a police state, and leaking such allegations violates every normal rule regarding FBI investigations. President Trump is right to be upset, though it is not helpful for him to lash out at the media in general.

The commentary was originally published at Jack Matlock’s blog. Read the full version here.

UPDATE: The debates were updated on Mar. 10 to include comments from Gregory Feifer, a former correspondent of National Public Radio (NPR) and Radio Free Europe (RFE), the author of The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan and Russians: the People behind the Power.