Sessions to Sit Out 2016 Probes, Winning Political RespiteBy and
Republican criticism muted as Democrats call for resignation
Investigations into Russian political interference continue
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ sudden decision to recuse himself from election-related Russia probes eased some of the political pressure that was building around his two meetings with the Russian ambassador.
But it came with a cost: the nation’s top law enforcement officer now will be mostly sidelined on the agency’s highest-profile, highest-stakes federal investigation, barely weeks into taking over the job.
Sessions won’t go to meetings, review evidence or weigh in on the final decisions to pursue or end multiple FBI investigations now under way into attempts by the Russian government to sway last year’s U.S. presidential election, including the hacking of Democratic Party emails, the Justice Department said.
President Donald Trump and many Republicans in Congress rallied behind Sessions after he announced his decision. Trump blamed Democrats for the controversy, calling it a “way of saving face” for Hillary Clinton’s election loss and accusing them of conducting a “total witch hunt.”
Legal experts struggled to find a recent parallel to Sessions’ decision because the attorney general was effectively recusing himself from an investigation that potentially involves him and his role as a prominent political supporter and adviser to Trump. That potentially puts his deputy and career prosecutors in the position of deciding whether to move ahead with probes of their boss, as well as current and former advisers to the president.
For now the duty falls to Dana Boente, the acting deputy attorney general, who first found himself in the national spotlight in February when Trump picked him to replace Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover who refused to enforce the president’s controversial travel ban. Boente is set to hold the job only until Senate confirmation of Trump’s choice for deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who faces a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing next week. Rosenstein is the U.S. attorney for Maryland.
Even as Sessions recused himself on Thursday, he attempted to draw a bright line at Election Day. He indicated he wasn’t necessarily staying out of matters that weren’t related to Trump’s winning presidential campaign -- even though they involve some of the very same players, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn. He was forced to resign for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the same envoy who caused trouble for Sessions.
While recusals among line prosecutors, supervisors and even attorneys general are commonplace due to family and professional conflicts of interest, such a public stepping-back from a high-profile investigation is unusual.
One of the closest comparisons, because of the high-level political stakes involved, was the investigation into the exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity amid the debate over the Bush administration’s justification for going to war in Iraq. In that matter, Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself without explanation.
Ashcroft’s deputy, James Comey, appointed U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald as a special counsel. Fitzgerald’s probe reached into the upper echelon of the George W. Bush White House, eventually leading to charges and a conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, for lying to investigators.
“It has the feel of that because it’s the attorney general who is being recused, and he’s potentially even a subject of the investigation,” said Scott Fredericksen, a partner at Foley & Lardner LLP and a former associate independent counsel who investigated alleged fraud at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “As it stands now, it’s an investigation that involves the administration’s contacts with the Russians so it is at that highest level.”
Comey, now the FBI director, is in charge of the agency’s Russia investigation and will report his findings to Boente.
More recently, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch was called upon to distance herself from investigations involving Clinton’s use of a private email server after Lynch had an impromptu meeting with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, on a tarmac in Phoenix. Lynch never formally recused herself but said she would accept the advice of Comey and career prosecutors.
Sessions and other Trump supporters, in an op-ed published Nov. 5 on FoxNews.com, said a special counsel should be appointed given the “highly charged political atmosphere.”
In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder recused himself from an investigation of national security leaks to the news media after the Justice Department subpoenaed the phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors without informing the news organization. Holder said he removed himself because he had been interviewed by the FBI in connection with the probe.
Sessions’ recusal didn’t fly with Democrats, some of whom continued to demand that he resign.
“We need to ensure that any investigation involving issues which overlap between the campaign and the administration are fully and fairly investigated, including what influence the Russian government, Russian intelligence and Russian financial interests may have with regard to Mr. Trump and his administration,” Representative John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “The attorney general must recuse himself from any and all investigations involving the campaign, the transition, and the Trump Administration.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said Friday on MSNBC that he and colleagues would ask Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley to bring Sessions back for more testimony. The panel should question aides to Sessions too, Blumenthal said.
But Sessions did manage to seal some cracks in support from fellow Republicans in Congress. Several influential lawmakers broke with Trump -- who said Thursday he didn’t see a need for Sessions to step back -- to urge Sessions to recuse himself. When he did, criticism turned to praise.
“It’s the best decision for the country and DOJ,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said via Twitter. “I have full confidence in Jeff Sessions serving as attorney general."
Sessions is among several Trump advisers from his campaign to get tripped up by Russian contacts that have become all the more sensitive because of the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government was behind the theft and leaking of Democratic Party emails in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign. The agencies found that Putin personally ordered a campaign “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency.” Also, that Putin and his government, along the way, “developed a clear preference” for Trump.
The Justice Department confirmed Wednesday that Sessions spoke twice last year with Kislyak while serving as a prominent supporter and adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign, but said it was as a senator and member of the Armed Services Committee. One contact was at the Republican National Convention in July in Cleveland and the second was at Sessions’ office in Washington.
During his Jan. 10 hearing for confirmation as attorney general, Sessions testified that “I did not have communications with the Russians.”
He said his statement to the Judiciary Committee was in the context of the question by Democratic Senator Al Franken, which he understood as being about whether he met with the Russians as a member of Trump’s campaign. Sessions said he never met with any Russian or intermediary about the campaign.
“That is the question I responded to,” Sessions told reporters. “My reply to the question of Senator Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time.”
Sessions added that “in retrospect, I should have slowed down" and told Franken, “I did meet one Russian official a couple of times, and that would be the ambassador.”
The president called Sessions “an honest man.”
“He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional,” Trump said.
— With assistance by Justin Sink