WASHINGTON ― The White House said it is perfectly comfortable with Attorney General Jeff Sessions leading the search for the next FBI director, even though Sessions promised to recuse himself from all matters that may involve the 2016 presidential election.
“I think this is a process that’s running completely as it should, as being headed by the deputy attorney general and the attorney general,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday. “As you’ve noted in the past, the FBI director reports to the deputy attorney general. They continue to move through a series of highly qualified candidates.”
In March, Sessions issued a statement promising, “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.”
His recusal came after he admitted that during his confirmation hearings, he did not disclose contacts he’d had with the Russian ambassador last year. The FBI is leading an investigation into the role the Russian government had in the 2016 election, and the next director will, therefore, have a heavy hand in the probe.
Sessions was also involved in the decision to fire James Comey from the job. The New York Times reported that senior White House and Justice Department officials “had been working on building a case” against Comey, and “Sessions had been charged with coming up with reasons to fire him.”
Trump has admitted that he weighed the FBI’s Russia investigation when he decided to fire Comey ― despite his administration’s insistence initially that Comey’s dismissal was all about how he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Sunday that he has asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to look into Sessions on this issue.
“The request I have made is not only to look into any interference to thwart the investigation, but whether Attorney General Sessions should have participated in the firing of Comey and should participate in [selecting an] FBI director,” he told CNN. “You know, Attorney General Sessions has a much higher obligation. He didn’t tell the truth about meeting with the Russians, so he recused himself. Now he seems to be violating that recusal. That would seem, on its face, to be part of this.”
Stephen Gillers, a New York University School of Law professor specializing in legal ethics, said Sessions should not have been involved in Comey’s firing. But, he said, he could have a limited role in picking his successor.
“[I]nterviews of candidates may include discussion of their views of the Russia investigation ― how to do it, whether there should be a special prosecutor, perhaps immunity questions and timing ― and Sessions must have no role in and no inside knowledge of those conversations,” Gillers said. “This is not a perfect solution, however, because Trump, not Sessions, chooses the FBI director. While Trump should limit any questions he may have to a candidate’s experience and general views about the Bureau and law enforcement ethos and priorities, we may not know if he asks more pointed questions.”
“Of course, a nominee can be asked about that at the confirmation hearings. All of this is complicated by the fact that Sessions has already reneged on his recusal promise to the Senate,” he added.
Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reportedly interviewed eight FBI director candidates over the weekend.
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