On Friday, amid widening scrutiny of alleged ties between the Russian government and key members of his campaign and administration, the president of the United States played what he might have hoped was a trump card against Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Namely, President Trump tweeted a 14-year-old photo of Schumer with Russian president Vladimir Putin, calling the Democrats hypocrites over their objections to Attorney General Jeff Sessions meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, then failing to admit it in his confirmation hearings. But the photo is not the antidote to Russia-related criticisms Trump may hope it is, and when you examine the full context, it's not hard to see why.
Trump actually went further than merely calling Schumer a hypocrite, to be clear; he also called for an investigation into Schumer's ties to the Russian government. It's wholly possible that Trump meant the threat of investigation as a sarcastic retort aimed at the New York Democratic senator, which would suggest a lack of respect for just how seriously such words are taken when coming from a president. It's a very serious statement, in other words, but also hard to take totally seriously. Especially given similarly hugely serious but ultimately empty threats Trump has made in the past ― he claimed he'd send Hillary Clinton to prison during a presidential debate, after all.
But more importantly, it's a total misdirection from the central fact of controversy surrounding Sessions, which has no parallel to Schumer's 2003 visit with Putin. As seen in the photo embedded in Trump's tweet, Schumer and Putin met in full view of the public, munching donuts and sipping coffee at a Manhattan gas station.
They don't exactly look like they're trying to cover up the fact that they're in the same room, do they? As CNN notes, Putin was visiting a Lukoil station in New York ― Lukoil is a Russian oil giant ― when he was photographed with Schumer. There was no subterfuge, or secrecy, nor even any allegation of such. Nor did Schumer ever misrepresent the fact that he'd met the Russian president, much less under oath during a Senate confirmation hearing.
In simple terms, as Schumer himself noted in a tweet replying to Trump, he met with Putin "in full view of press and public," and now says he'd have no problem discussing the meeting "under oath." He also issued a retaliatory challenge to Trump on that last part: "Would you and your team?"
Happily talk re: my contact w Mr. Putin & his associates, took place in '03 in full view of press & public under oath. Would you &your team? https://t.co/yXgw3U8tmQ— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) March 3, 2017
The scandal currently embroiling Sessions, on the other hand ― which forced the fledgling attorney general to recuse himself from any future investigations into Trump and Russia ― is not that he simply met with Kislyak. It's that he told Senator Al Franken, under oath, that he hadn't, potentially perjuring himself in the process.
Here's what Sessions said when Franken asked him about multiply alleged and reported connections between Trump campaign operatives and Russia, and how he'd handle any further revelations on that front if he were attorney general.
In short, the issue with Sessions is that he made a false statement during a Senate confirmation hearing, under oath. Sessions himself has responded that he meant he hadn't had any contacts with Russian officials to "discuss issues of the campaign," an interpretation which would mean he didn't commit perjury, which requires the telling of knowing falsehoods. There is no such controversy surrounding Schumer right now, because he's never misled anyone about the 2003 public meeting, much less while under oath and penalty of perjury.
Trump's attack obfuscates this crucial point, turning it into an argument about whether any government official can meet with a Russian official, rather than the specific controversies and allegations facing his campaign and administration. And while it's clear why he might want the narrative to shift that way, it doesn't hold together on closer scrutiny.