WASHINGTON ― Attorney General Jeff Sessions was supposed to be totally out of the picture when it came to the Justice Department’s investigation of what role Russia played in the 2016 election. He recused himself in March, after he admitted that during his confirmation hearings, he did not disclose contacts he’d had with the Russian ambassador last year.
But Sessions was reportedly deeply involved in the decision to fire Comey Tuesday night, amid an escalation in the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling.
“You have a president whose associates are under investigation by the FBI. You have an attorney general who is supposed to have recused himself from decisions over the Russia investigation, making a recommendation to the president to fire that chief investigator, and the president taking that recommendation,” House intelligence committee ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said on MSNBC Tuesday. “It raises a whole host of conflicts of interest and questions about whether this is simply brazen interference with a criminal investigation.”
The New York Times reported that senior White House and Justice Department officials “had been working on building a case against Mr. Comey since at least last week, according to administration officials. Mr. Sessions had been charged with coming up with reasons to fire him, the officials said.”
Sessions also recommended Comey’s dismissal in a letter to Trump, saying he was supporting the case laid out by his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.
“The Director of the FBI must be someone who follows faithfully the rules and principles of the Department of Justice and who sets the right example for our law enforcement officials and others in the Department,” Sessions wrote. “Therefore, I must recommend that you remove Director James B. Comey, Jr., and identify an experienced and qualified individual to lead the great men and women of the FBI.”
The Justice Department did not return a request for comment on what role Sessions played in Comey’s firing and whether it violated his promise to recuse himself.
Rosenstein’s memo to Sessions about how the FBI’s “reputation and credibility have suffered” in the past year focused solely on Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
But Trump’s letter firing Comey betrayed another motive: the FBI’s Russia investigation. Trump said he appreciated Comey “informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
It’s hard to believe that Trump was truly upset about the handling of the Clinton emails as laid out by Rosenstein, considering that during the campaign he threatened to imprison his Democratic opponent if he became president. Sessions himself defended Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation at the time, although he apparently now finds Comey’s conduct so objectionable as to be a fireable offense.
“I think it showed a blatant disregard for the commitment to recuse himself.”
Shortly before the election, Comey announced that he was reopening the probe into Clinton’s private server after more emails were found on the computer of former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who was married to a top Clinton aide.
Then on Nov. 6, just two days before the presidential election, Comey said the FBI had once again cleared the Democratic nominee and she would not face any charges.
The decision to insert the FBI into the political discussion so close to an election was unprecedented, and Clinton has said she still believes his decision was a major reason she lost to Trump.
Trump criticized Comey’s decision not to charge Clinton at the time, although he added that the director “brought back his reputation” by reopening the probe shortly before the election ― exactly what Rosenstein’s memo said was problematic.
“It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they’re trying to protect her from criminal prosecution,” Trump said in late October, adding, “I was not his fan, but I’ll tell you what: What he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back.”
Senate Democrats met Wednesday morning about the Comey news. While many called for an independent counsel to probe the Russia meddling ― and any possible collusion with the Trump campaign ― others went further and said Sessions and Rosenstein should recuse themselves from picking a special prosecutor, who should also be the highest-ranking career prosecutor.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also specifically said Sessions’ involvement went against his promise to recuse himself from the Russia probe.
“I urge people to compare the statement that the attorney general made with respect to recusal to the events of the last day or so, with the president of the United States specifically mentioning in connection with those letters, the investigation of Russia. I think it showed a blatant disregard for the commitment to recuse himself,” Wyden said.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) agreed.
“I find it deeply troubling that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who misled the judiciary committee about his own communications with the Russian ambassador and who pledged to recuse himself from this investigation as a result, betrayed that pledge,” Franken said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, said she wasn’t yet sure if Sessions violated his recusal promise.
“That’s a good question, and I don’t know yet,” she told HuffPost. “The day isn’t over and the week isn’t over. Let’s see.”
Stephen Gillers, a New York University School of Law professor specializing in legal ethics, said Sessions “reneged on his recusal promise to the Senate,” pointing to Sessions’ statement from March: “I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”
“That’s ‘campaigns’ plural,” Gillers said. “The grounds for firing Mr. Comey in the Rosenstein memorandum are explicitly stated to be Mr. Comey’s public comments about Mrs. Clinton during the campaigns. These grounds are plainly encompassed within Mr. Sessions’ description of the broad scope of his recusal.”
Trump’s dismissal of Comey came just after a federal grand jury issued subpoenas seeking business records from associates of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had to resign after reports came out about his meetings with Russian officials before Trump took office. Investigators have also been probing the money Flynn received from clients tied to foreign governments, including Russia, according to CNN.
Comey had also reportedly recently asked for more funding for the agency’s investigation into Russia and the election, although a Justice Department spokesman denied this claim.
On Monday, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified before Congress that less than a week into Trump’s term as president, she had warned the White House that Flynn could be susceptible to blackmail by Russia because he had lied about his contacts with foreign officials.
Trump was clearly upset about the Senate committee hearing and Yates’ testimony, tweeting before and after about it.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed to reporters Wednesday that Trump had lost confidence in Comey “from the day he was elected” and had been thinking about letting him go since then.
In April, Trump said he had “confidence” in Comey.
Michael McAuliff contributed reporting.
This piece has been updated with comments from Stephen Gillers.
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