Sessions' Public Trust Dilemma By Luke Perry
Attorney General Jeff Sessions appealed to the the notion of trust yesterday defending himself in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The suggestion he was involved with or aware of "any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country,” Sessions explained in his opening statement, “which I have served with honor for 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.” Sessions’ testimony was a mix of denials of personal wrongdoing, corroboration of Comey’s testimony, and an unwillingness or inability to discuss several topics.
Trust is a problematic defense for Sessions given the design of the political system and current status of public trust in government. The Federalists who created American government were realists who believed a political system should be designed around how people are, not how they should be. In doing so, they assumed that people are self-interested, and divided government power into different levels (federal, state, local) and branches (legislative, executive, judicial) to prevent one person or group from abusing power.
The idea that one’s record speaks for itself, so that length of service and collegiality alone, should preclude tough questioning, is antithetical to the nature of the system and damaging to modern democracy.
This tension was exhibited in jockeying over how often Sessions would testify and to what extent he would shield conversations he had with the president. Both sides raised reasonable points. Senators want to exercise their oversight role as constitutionally mandated. Sessions wants to avoid testifying on every twist and turn in this dramatic investigation, while enabling the president to have candid professional conversations with him. After all, the Framers did develop the Constitution in secret out of concern that constant public scrutiny would prevent an honest and wide ranging discussion of how to fix the failing confederacy.
Still, public trust in government has dropped significantly over the last 50 years. Major events, such as the Vietnam War, Watergate, and Iraq War, prompted public trust to fall from over 75 percent in 1958, when the National Election Study began measuring it, to under 30 percent today. This, of course, is not the fault of the Trump administration. A gradual decline included a steep drop off during the W. Bush administration followed by stabilization under President Obama.
Whether public trust in government increases or declines will be crucially connected to the Russia investigation and the Trump presidency. Irrespective of what people think of the president, there are many reasons to be concerned. It’s well documented how the president has disputed basic facts (ex. inaugural crowd sizes), not followed typical disclosure protocol (ex. releasing tax returns), and raised ethical questions and now legal challenges for not divesting himself from his business. It’s unlikely the Trump presidency thus far will enhance public trust given these developments.
Sessions’ own record has not been without unique challenges as well. His appointment to a federal judgeship by Ronald Reagan was not approved by his colleagues in the Senate because of concerns about racism. In his confirmation hearing for Attorney General, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) became the first sitting Senator to testify against another, breaking Senate tradition.
These historic and immediate circumstances suggest that Jeff Sessions’ appeal to trust and honor are limited at best. Sessions and the country would be better served by greater recognition that public trust in government is also an important part of his professional responsibility atop the Justice Department. Increased transparency, not blind trust, is the best path forward to efficiently and effectively concluding the Russia investigation.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Professor of Government at Utica College. His column Sound Off! critiques various aspects of American politics.