Attorney General Jeff Sessions voted to remove President Bill Clinton from office in 1999, saying that false statements made under oath disqualified him from the White House.
As a Senator from Alabama, Sessions argued that Clinton’s artfully hedged statement under oath that he did not have a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky — which was untrue in the plain English reading — was perjury and grounds for removal from the office.
"I have no doubt that perjury qualifies under the Constitution as a high crime," Sessions said in September 1998, according to an Associated Press article from the time. "It goes to the heart of the judicial system."
Today, Sessions has come under fire for saying under oath that he did not communicate with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign, despite having met privately with the Russian ambassador to the United States in September.
During Sessions’ Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 10, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota asked Sessions what he would do if he learned that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communicated with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” Sessions responded at the hearing. “I have been called a surrogate at a team or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Sessions in fact met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak in his office, and earlier in July on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention, the Washington Post reported yesterday.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both called on Sessions to resign from his position as attorney general, while a number of Republican lawmakers have called on him to recuse himself from any investigations into Russian influence on the election.
House Speaker Paul Ryan disagreed, saying it would not be necessary unless Sessions himself was the subject of the investigation. And President Trump said Thursday he has “total” confidence in Sessions, and when asked whether he believes Sessions made truthful statements to the Senate, Trump said, “I think he probably did."
A spokeswoman for Sessions told the Post that the then-Senator was meeting with the Russian ambassador strictly in his capacity as a member of the Armed Services Committee, unrelated to the campaign. Sessions’ backers also say that he was not misleading the Judiciary Committee within the context of the questioning.
Their defense rests on a narrow reading of Sessions’ statement — that he met with the Russians as a Senator and not a Trump campaign surrogate. Clinton defended his statement that “there’s nothing going on” with Monica Lewinsky by saying that it depended on “the meaning of the word ‘is.'”
At the time of the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Sessions was a vociferous voice in favor of removing the President from office, saying he was unfit to lead the country after making false statements under oath.
“It has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty that President William Jefferson Clinton perjured himself before a federal grand jury and has persisted in a continuous pattern of lying and obstructing justice,” Sessions said in a statement after voting to impeach Clinton in February 1999. “The chief law enforcement officer of the land, whose oath of office calls on him to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, crossed the line and failed to defend and protect the law, and, in fact, attacked the law and the rights of a fellow citizen.”
Amid a popular outcry over Clinton’s statements, Clinton claimed that he had not lied about his relationship with Lewinsky because they did not engage in intercourse and because the affair had long been over by the time he made his sworn testimony.
In 1998, Sessions found Clinton’s defense objectionable.
"I find it difficult to be charitable if we still have the president, through his counsel, alleging that it wasn't really perjury," Sessions said in September.
In response to the report in the Post yesterday about his meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sessions did not walk back his sworn testimony and maintained that he did nothing wrong.
“I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign,” Sessions told reporters on Thursday. It’s unclear if that defense holds. The question that was posed by Franken during Sessions’ testimony was broadly about communication, not specifically about discussing the political campaign.
Sessions said in late 1998 that he wanted to read carefully Clinton's statements to be sure of the perjury allegations before the impeachment proceedings in the Senate.
"I sort of assumed perjury occurred, but I want to read what was said, what the established fact is, and decide how clear that is and whether or not there is any wriggle room or realistic defense there," Sessions said in December 1998.
Early the next month, he insisted on a full trial. "There can't be any shortcuts," he said in early January 1999. "I believe decent respect to the American people and to the House requires us to have a full trial."
"I am concerned about a president under oath being alleged to have committed perjury. I hope he can rebut that and prove that did not happen," Sessions said in an interview with C-SPAN in 1999. "In America, the Supreme Court and the American people believe no one is above the law."