Kleindienst’s excuse there was that he thought the question in the Senate was about a different time frame than the one in which he communicated with the president — a quite pale excuse. But what ended up happening was that Jaworski prosecuted Kleindienst for crimes of failure to provide accurate information to Congress, which is a misdemeanor — which, of course, falls short of perjury, which is a felony.

Kleindienst was forced to resign as attorney general and was reprimanded by the Arizona bar. There is precedent for this type of testimony which [is] misleading, which may not be a blatant lie that amounts to perjury but is more in the debatable category.

The facts now in this investigation are much worse than the facts in the early stages of Watergate, which was a simple break-in ordered by midlevel campaign officials — not by the president. Here we have facts that are much worse: We have a foreign power that has orchestrated a break-in. It’s a much worse situation than the outset of Watergate.

Tara Golshan

What have you made of the White House’s response to this? You were the ethics lawyer under the Bush administration — are they following the guidance you would have given in this situation?

Richard Painter

I don’t see much of a response. They are blowing it off. It’s very clear President Trump needs to immediately find out who in his campaign had any communications with the Russians about anything. Find out what those communications were to the best of his ability and find out who in the administration knew what the Russians were doing. He needs to support a thorough inquiry, not a cover-up — that is the mistake Nixon made with Watergate.

Their public comments have been atrocious so far. They keep accusing CNN of fake news; then the spokesperson for the Kremlin accuses CNN of fake news. What we are seeing is the White House putting themselves on the same page as the Kremlin, when they [the Russians] have been spying on the United States and attacked our democratic system in 2016. That is a terrible posture they are in. They need to do a complete reversal here.

Don’t cover it up. Get the people out that collaborated with the Russians, have a thorough investigation. If there is something that Putin has that is embarrassing to Donald Trump, just tell it to us. They certainly shouldn’t be repeating phrases like “fake news” that are being repeated by the Kremlin to attack the American media. That is exactly the wrong approach.

Tara Golshan

How much weight should be placed on partisanship here? That’s the argument the White House is making, after all — that this is a witch hunt.

Richard Painter

I have been a Republican for decades, and the one thing that Republicans and Democrats should have in common is concern about our national security. And in particular the attempts by Russia over the decades — going back to the 1920s — to subvert our government by supporting extremist groups like the American Communist Party, or now white supremacist groups.

This is not a Democratic and Republican issue, and figuring out who in our government is cooperating with the Russians is of the utmost importance. We certainly don’t need a McCarthy-type witch hunt, and this shouldn’t be abused for political purposes, but it’s a critically important issue, and Democrats and Republicans can be united on this. And I certainly don’t think the Republican Party should become a pro-Putin party. If it is, we are going to have sort ourselves out.

Tara Golshan

With a recusal, are there still concerns with an independent review of the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia? If so, where?

Richard Painter

At this point, he can’t have anything to do with the investigation. It needs to be an independent prosecutor, and cannot report to the attorney general and should not be someone who reports to someone who reports to the attorney general.

We absolutely need to find out what happened with the Russians, but this attorney general is not equipped to do that. He is conflicted out.

Tara Golshan

Do you think this could go further than recusal? Indictment?

Richard Painter

That’s way down the road here. At this point, given the facts we have now, I don’t think [Sessions] could continue as attorney general. Certainly if he were indicted, he would be forced to step down as attorney general. You don’t need indictable conduct for an attorney general to step down.

This may very well fall into the category of what Bill Clinton did or Attorney General Kleindienst did — something falling short of perjury. We will deal with that when we get to it. At this point, [Sessions] provided misleading information to Congress, and we need to get to the bottom of it.

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