Washington word games over Russian recusal

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On the roster: - Washington word games over Russian recusal - Secrecy surrounds supposed ObamaCare replacement - I’ll Tell You What: Of policy and pizza bones - Carson gets plum post in his fruit salad - Woof

The silly sematic game being played in Washington right now centers on the word “recusal.”

Here’s the setup: Attorney General Jeff Sessions failed to disclose a meeting he had with the same Russian ambassador who was at the center of the controversy that led to the firing of Michael Flynn as national security adviser.

Democrats are in an enormous huff, obviously. They say Sessions lied under oath in his confirmation hearings when asked by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., whether Sessions, as part of then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign, had any contacts with Russian officials.

WaPo broke the story that Sessions had in fact met with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the heat of last year’s presidential race and the controversy surrounding Russian hacking of Hillary Clinton’s campaign emails. Top Democrats initially called for Sessions to recuse himself, but then, sensing even greater opportunity, jumped right ahead to saying Sessions should resign.

Of course they did…

But in the realm of reasonable men and women, the focus is on the “r” word: recusal. Sessions, for his part, said, “whenever it’s appropriate, I will recuse myself.” That’s despite White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer telling Fox News that Sessions is perfectly suitable to oversee an investigation into potential contacts between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. That’s a sentiment reportedly shared by the president.

So, let’s clear things up. There’s nothing wrong with a senator meeting with an ambassador, even from a shady government like Putin’s, especially if that senator serves on the Foreign Relations Committee.

As was the case with Flynn, the problem here isn’t the contact, it’s the failure to disclose it when asked. And that’s why congressional Republicans are today privately expressing frustration that Session’s never corrected the record about his contact with Vladimir Putin’s ambassador.

Some Hill GOPers are enormously frustrated that neither Sessions nor someone on his staff sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee to clarify Sessions’ testimony when Kislyak and Flynn were splashed across the front pages for a week.

Carrying water for the administration on the Russia stuff got a lot more arduous with this revelation. This may just be a pure case of “gotcha,” in which Sessions’ memory lapse gives Democrats the excuse they needed to ramp back up their Russian fixation. But that’s probably enough to push Sessions aside on the Trump-Russia probe.

Obviously, the president and his team know that we are far from the end of this saga. White House Counsel Don McGahn has instructed Trump’s aides to preserve everything related to Russia, a sure sign that we are just getting warmed up.

Also just warming up, likely, are leaks about Trump’s Russia ties. The NYT reports that outgoing Obama administration officials stockpiled and secured information about Trump and Russia in a bid to make sure that Team Trump didn’t sweep it under the rug. That article is something of a promissory note of leaks to come.

As for Sessions’ recusal though, it’s really a question of timing. Everyone knows that there is an investigation already underway by the FBI into Trump campaign ties and, presumably, the leaks of those ties.

Let’s remember, though, that there has been no evidence presented anywhere that Team Trump colluded with anyone in Russia about obtaining or leaking information damaging to Clinton’s campaign. And it’s old news that Trump’s campaign had Russian ties, starting with the former campaign Chairman, Paul Manafort.

But that doesn’t mean that all the questions have been answered.

Congressional inquiries, maybe even in the form of a select committee on the subject, will be a part of life in Washington for the foreseeable future. Whether you think Kremlin mischief was the key element in Clinton’s defeat or not, hostile foreign actions toward the American political system always merits investigation.

But it is what the administration does on the subject that matters most now. Sessions says he would step aside if the issue comes before him, but in a real sense, the issue is already before him since the FBI, though semi-autonomous, is part of the Justice Department.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder’s refusal to take special precautions on dealing with the investigation of IRS officials targeting conservative groups smelled funkier than sweat socks. Failing to treat this investigation differently would stink even worse, and make Sessions and the entire administration look guilty.

What’s needed here is a special counsel, but not a special prosecutor.

This is an important distinction. A special prosecutor is someone picked by a judge to investigate potential criminal activity when the court decides that the administration cannot fairly conduct the investigation. A special counsel is a person picked by the president to do an independent investigation. Big difference.

The moment seems to call for a reputable, fair-minded, probably Republican, former official who can conduct a probe, collect the evidence and publish his or her conclusions for Congress and the wider world to see.

Think of someone like former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, or former Attorney General John Ashcroft or New Hampshire Senator and state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte – basically, the kinds of Republicans with reputations for fairness and independence, high-level security clearances and who command respect across the aisle.

Since we know the Russia stuff is not going away, it would behoove the president and his administration to appear proactive. Also remember that the problem with these kinds of controversies with administrations is that they never end. Commissioning a full inquest by a trusted, independent finder of fact creates a finish line.

Democrats would never be satisfied with what a Trump-tapped investigator found, but it would allow Republicans to make the case that they were not hiding the ball and to eventually declare the questions about Russia asked and answered.

If they don’t, the threat of the congressional select committee, and potentially the special prosecutor, loom larger. Remember, it was unanswered questions about a land deal in Arkansas that ultimately led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about assignations with one of his interns.

Trump needs to look like he’s not hiding or he could end up with a Ken Starr of his own.

“Let us not attempt to reconcile contradictions, but firmly embrace a rational alternative.” – Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 23

The New Yorker: “In the early twentieth century, the members of the Osage Nation became the richest people per capita in the world, after oil was discovered under their reservation, in Oklahoma. Then they began to be mysteriously murdered off. In 1923, after the death toll reached more than two dozen, the case was taken up by the Bureau of Investigation, then an obscure branch of the Justice Department, which was later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The case was among the F.B.I.’s first major homicide investigations. After J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the bureau’s director, in 1924, he sent a team of undercover operatives, including a Native American agent, to the Osage reservation.”

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Bloomberg: “House Republican leaders have a new version of their major Obamacare repeal and replacement bill. They just don’t want you to see it. The document is being treated a bit like a top-secret surveillance intercept. It is expected to be available to members and staffers on the House Energy and Commerce panel starting Thursday, but only in a dedicated reading room, one Republican lawmaker and a committee aide said. Nobody will be given copies to take with them. The unusual secrecy is a reflection of the sensitivity – and the stakes – surrounding the GOP effort to rewrite the Affordable Care Act, a top priority of President Donald Trump, who has yet to offer his own plan.”

President Trump gave a widely-praised address Tuesday, and your favorite duo are here to give their take. Dana Perino and Chris Stirewalt talk about the death of proportionality (no, not concerning serving size…) and why hypocrisy is better than the alternative. Plus, what are pizza bones? Something only Stirewalt can make up. LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE.

USA Today: “Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who challenged Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, won Senate confirmation Thursday to join Trump’s Cabinet as housing secretary. Six Democrats and one independent joined 51 Republicans in voting for Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development…When his nomination cleared the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee in January, Democrats said Carson would not have been their choice, but they welcomed his promises to address lead hazards in housing, homelessness and other issues. He was approved unanimously in the committee. Carson, 65, will lead an agency with some 8,300 employees and a budget of about $47 billion.”

And Perry is confirmed too - WaPo: “The Senate voted 62 to 37 Thursday afternoon to confirm former Texas governor Rick Perry as energy secretary, brushing aside Perry’s onetime vow to abolish the department. The genial Republican drew less fire from Democrats during his confirmation process than other Trump nominees, but Perry now faces many of the same tough issues over regulations, the department’s activities to slow climate change and potentially deep cuts in manpower and spending.”

Fox News Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano explains the growing problems of leaks for the Trump administration: “One can see why Trump rails against the press. Yet he has taken an oath to preserve, protect and defend the very constitutional principles that protect and liberate a free press from the anger of the government, no matter how well-grounded that anger may be. One of his predecessors who was savaged by the press, Thomas Jefferson, wrote that accountability and transparency in government are of such overriding value that he’d prefer newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers.” Read here.

“With all that’s going on with law enforcement, I just want to say that I love the po-lice! … That’s what I say to the officer each and every time he pulls me over.” – Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. at the Washington Press Club Foundation congressional dinner Wednesday night.

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“If there really are millions who are voluntarily uninsured, some of who may buy insurance if there were more options, and most of those who have insurance would have it with or without the mandate, is the elimination of the mandate really going to affect the market that much?” – Drew Watkins, Lexington, Ky.

[Ed. note: You sound like a reasonable and responsible citizen, Mr. Watkins. You are not the kind of person that roils the debate over health insurance. The problematic people are those who, like me, decided not to carry insurance, even though I could’ve afforded it, as a young man. Without the mandate, these so-called “young invincibles” (they’re not, but they think they are) are even less likely to buy policies. You are right that with more, cheaper plans available, some might be inclined to opt in. But we are still looking at multibillion-dollar shortfalls. The real question in Washington today is how to carry out the politically unpopular work of bailing out the insurance industry now and at least the coming year, in order to maintain coverage for those already in ObamaCare.]

“‘The president is calling for new mothers to get paid for staying home.’ That could certainly be called the ‘nanny’ state. The next questions are: Does that mean that ‘non-working’ mothers (an oxymoron) will be exempt from paying the taxes it will take to pay ‘working’ new mothers to stay home with their new-born babies? And why should anyone get paid to stay home to take care of the children they brought into this world?” – Eleanor Korf, Glendale, Ariz.

[Ed. note: Quite right, Ms. Korf! And it doesn’t take a criminal genius to figure out that expectant mothers would be well advised to find jobs in order to qualify for the benefits. Plus, women who didn’t intend to return to work at all after childbirth, not a small category, would simply be getting a taxpayer-financed severance package. Many smaller Western nations provide such benefits and even make accommodations for fathers to receive subsidies. How it would work in a wildly diverse sprawling, brawling nation of 325 million people is anybody’s guess. But one thing is for sure: it wouldn’t be cheap.]

“Forty days of the Trump administration followed by forty days of Lent. Coincidence? I think not.” – Michael Farrell, South Burlington, Vt.

[Ed. note: It depends on one’s interpretation of Lent. The liturgical season is generally to be one of atonement, but there definitions matter too. As Christians atone, are they making reparations for their sins – a tradition in keeping with the Jewish observance of Rosh Hashanah – or are they preparing to commemorate and renew the reconciliation between God and man through the sacrificial death of Jesus? Christians of the Reform tradition tend to look at Lent as more of the latter, while Roman Catholics and some Protestant sects take the former, more penitential view. There are elements of both of these concepts in every understanding of Lent since even the most grace-oriented Christian would agree that true repentance is marked by a turning from sin. And even the most works-oriented Christian would acknowledge that the restoration of a right relationship with God can never be accomplished by human toil. As to your specific point about Trump and the new season begun on the eve of Ash Wednesday, we will soon find out whether the president’s remarks were for show or reflective of a contrite heart.]

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WaPo: “Garfield is lazy; Garfield is a cat; Garfield likes lasagna. Is there really much more to say about Garfield? The character is not complicated. Since the comic debuted in 1978… But this is 2017 — a time of Internet wars, social conundrums and claims to competing evidence about Garfield’s gender identity…It all started with a comment Garfield’s creator, Jim Davis, made two years ago in an interview with Mental Floss…’Garfield is very universal,’ Davis [said] ‘By virtue of being a cat, really, he’s not really male or female or any particular race or nationality, young or old.’ The remark caused no fuss… Until last week, when the satirist Virgil Texas dug the quote up and used it to make a bold claim and bold move: ‘FACT: Garfield has no gender. This. Is. Canon.’ …Garfield’s gender swapped 20 times over 2½ days …Garfield was finally, officially listed as male on Wikipedia — citing four comic strips including one from 1979 in which a veterinarian says ‘he’s too fat.’”

“I think it’s that sense of stability and sobriety which is what helps the markets to say well this is the presidency we can count on and we don’t expect to see carnage.” – Charles Krauthammer reacting to President Trump’s speech Tuesday night.

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Sally Persons contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.