Attorney General Jeff Sessions is publicly testifying today before the Senate Intelligence Committee, adding further drama to the investigation into the connection between Trump’s associates and Russia’s meddling into the 2016 elections.
Unfortunately, Sessions is arriving at the Capitol with a dark cloud hanging over his head. In his testimony last week, former FBI Director James Comey raised serious concerns about the propriety of the attorney general’s conduct related to the Russia investigation. The testimony raised serious questions as to whether the nation’s top law enforcement official is undermining the rule of law.
To start, Sessions said he recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference with our elections on March 2, and yet Trump cited Sessions’ recommendation when firing Comey, who was at the helm of the investigation. At the Department of Justice, Sessions reportedly discussed firing Comey for months while the inquiry was ongoing. This led Comey to ask aloud before Congress the question on everyone’s mind: “If — if, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain?” Why indeed?
And while Sessions jumped in when he should have stayed out, he also got out when he should have stayed in. One of the more chilling parts of Comey’s testimony was his description of a White House meeting where the president cleared the room to speak with Comey alone—the famous conversation in which the president said he “hoped” the FBI would drop the investigation against former Trump aide, Michael Flynn. Comey felt that Sessions sensed the inappropriateness of the request, lingering on his way out the Oval Office. But Comey was eventually left alone with Trump, and the president allegedly told him, “I hope you can let this go,” in reference to investigating the Russia connections of Michael Flynn, who had recently resigned as Trump’s national-security adviser. Afterward, Comey asked his boss to make sure that wouldn’t happen again, but Sessions showed no reaction to his plea.
Those were not the only reasons Sessions inspired mistrust. Sessions was, of course, a key figure in the Trump campaign that is the subject of investigation for its Russian ties. Sessions himself has come under fire for failure to disclose meetings with top Russian officials during the campaign. Senior leaders at the FBI decided not to tell Sessions about the meeting between Comey and the president. According to Comey, they were aware of facts that “would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic” —facts that he would disclose only in a confidential setting.
This behavior by the attorney general would be troubling enough on its own. It’s all the more troubling when the president’s actions — and tweets — remind us daily of the need for independent law enforcement leaders whose loyalty is to the rule of law.
In five short months the president has attacked the judiciary, both impugning judges personally and casting doubt on the legitimacy of the decisions emanating from a coequal branch of government. He even threatened to ignore court rulings altogether. He has come under criticism for watering down ethics rules to the extent that former White House ethics officials have called them “virtually meaningless.” As we learned last week, he effectively asked a sitting FBI director to drop an investigation that has the potential to touch the president, and then fired him after he stepped up the investigation. This week, he has reportedly been mulling firing the special counsel that was appointed to take over that investigation. Taken together, this conduct is creating a national crisis of rule of law.
Our democracy depends on the rule of law, and we need an attorney general who can help shore it up now. Unfortunately, so far Sessions has shown no indication that he’s willing to stand up to the president, as past attorney generals have done. He urgently needs to show now that his loyalty is to the law, not to the man.
All our public servants have an urgent responsibility to repair our nation’s commitment to the rule of law. Congress needs to ask the hard questions to get to the bottom of whether the attorney general’s conduct (not to mention the president’s) crossed the line. Special Counsel Mueller must be provided the uncontested authority to follow the facts wherever they may lead, without threats of being fired. And the Department of Justice’s inspector general must launch a full investigation to determine if the Department’s independence was breached.
In 1780, soon-to-be President John Adams sought “a government of laws and not of men.” Nowhere is it more urgent to uphold this principle than in the Department of Justice.