After months of public and private pressure, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is giving President Donald Trump what he’s long demanded, going back to the days of “Crooked Hillary” and “lock her up”: an inquiry that could lead to a full-fledged investigation of his vanquished opponent and the Clinton Foundation.
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Things may never be the same for Sessions or the Justice Department he leads. The attorney general is erasing longstanding barriers between the president and the administration of justice, and seems close to violating his own pledge to Congress to recuse himself from all matters impacting Hillary Clinton.
At a moment where Sessions’ leadership and credibility is being questioned – the president himself has openly pondered firing him, and Democrats are accusing him of lying about his knowledge of Russian contacts with the Trump campaign – the attorney general is giving the appearance that he’s bowing to the political demands of the president.
The announcement of the new inquiry, coming on the eve of high-profile testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, had the immediate impact of subsuming news about Russia – including new information about meetings Sessions previously said he had no recollection of.
But it also raised deeper concerns about the impartiality of the administration of justice.
The top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, mentioned to Sessions that he was once on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” – and said the current conduct by the administration is reminiscent of the Watergate era.
“President Trump seems to believe that, on a whim, he can bring pressure to bear on his enemies,” said Conyers, D-Mich. “I cannot overemphasize the danger this perspective poses to this republic.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, raised a similar concern on Twitter last night: “If the AG bends to pressure from President Trump and his allies, and appoints a special counsel to investigate Trump’s vanquished rival, it could spell the end of the DOJ as an independent institution.”
Pressed on whether he has recused himself from any investigation of Clinton, Sessions declined to comment, citing department policy that he said keeps him from confirming or denying the existence of any such investigation.
He did, however, say he stands by his January statement that “the proper thing for me to do would be for me to recuse myself” on matters involving Clinton, given his past involvement in the Trump campaign.
Sessions pushed back at the perception that he is doing anything because the president demanded he do it, and said his department would not and will not be used to settle political scores.
“The Department of Justice can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents. And that would be wrong,” he told lawmakers today. “A president cannot improperly influence an investigation, and I have not been improperly influenced.”
But it’s hard to avoid the perception of presidential influence. Trump has tweeted repeatedly about the need for Sessions and the Justice Department to investigate the Clinton Foundation, Clinton herself, and other Democrats in the Clinton orbit.
On Nov. 3, after Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a TV interview that she thought the Democratic primaries were imbalanced in Clinton’s favor, the president tweeted: “Pocahontas just stated that the Democrats, lead by the legendary Crooked Hillary Clinton, rigged the Primaries! Lets go FBI & Justice Dept.”
Shortly before leaving on his trip to Asia, Trump said he was “very frustrated” that the Justice Department wasn’t investigating Democrats for allegations of questionable dealings and relationships. Asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl if he was considering firing Sessions over such frustrations, Trump replied, “I don’t know.”
“I'm really not involved with the Justice Department. I'd like to let it run itself. But honestly they should be looking at the Democrats,” Trump said. “They should be looking at a lot of things, and a lot of people are disappointed in the Justice Department, including me.”
The president may be a little less disappointed now.
Under Sessions’ direction, the Justice Department is now examining allegations that donations to the Clinton Foundation were related to an Obama administration decision to give a Russian nuclear agency access to uranium in the United States.
Prosecutors’ findings – including a potential recommendation for a broader inquiry, led by a special counsel - will be reported to the attorney general or the deputy attorney “as appropriate,” according to a Justice Department letter sent to key House Republicans. So it’s possible Sessions’ recusal from the topic will stand.
More broadly, though, the renewed scrutiny of Clinton and the foundation reflects a political score Trump has a stated interest in settling, at a time that he would like far less interest in his own campaign’s contacts with Russia.
“Whataboutism” is now dangerously close to becoming U.S. Justice Department policy.