Legal experts weigh in on Sessions' call to evaluate Clinton allegations

Some legal experts told ABC News Sessions' decision raises ethical concerns.

November 14, 2017, 8:11 PM

— -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions revealed on Monday that he has authorized senior prosecutors at the Justice Department to evaluate whether allegations regarding the Clinton Foundation and the sale of Uranium One need to be investigated by a special counsel.

Sessions’ apparent interest in reexamining Hillary Clinton comes 10 days after President Trump told reporters that the Justice Department “should be looking at the Democrats” and that “a lot of people are disappointed in the Justice Department, including me.”

Those prosecutors would be tasked with looking into Clinton's role in approving the 2010 acquisition of U.S. uranium stockpiles by a Russian energy company —- a complicated deal that has come to be known simply as Uranium One. Uranium One was the name of the Canadian company with large uranium stakes in North America and overseas —- including some in the U.S. —- that was purchased by the Russian energy giant, Rosatom.

In his January confirmation hearings, Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he would recuse himself from investigations that involve Hillary Clinton, admitting that “with regard to Secretary Clinton and some of the comments I made, I do believe that that could place my objectivity in question.”

But in a letter on Monday to Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote that Justice Department prosecutors would “evaluate certain issues” relating to Hillary Clinton and make recommendations to Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources, or whether matters merit the appointment of a special counsel.”

Some legal experts told ABC News that this letter raises ethical concerns.

“Certainly Sessions’ involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, which already branded Secretary Clinton a criminal, would raise a question of his impartiality in these circumstances,” said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former Republican chair of the Federal Election Commission. “Other, less political, officials at the Department of Justice should be making decisions about any Clinton investigations,” Potter said.

“The whole situation is unusual,” said a former Department of Justice official, who explained that “historically, DOJ has had a strong record of independence,” which could erode if there is an “appearance that DOJ is acting based on political pressure rather than on an independent assessment of the facts and the law.”

“You have to go back to Nixon to find a similar situation of a president involving himself in prosecutions of political enemies,” concluded another former government official.

But other legal experts told ABC News that Sessions does not appear to have crossed any legal or ethical lines at this point.

Kathleen Clark, a legal ethics professor at Washington University School of Law, said that in Monday’s letter, Sessions “may be attempting to thread a difficult needle” by “mollifying certain House Republicans who want the resources of the Department of Justice trained on Clinton Inc.” while at the same time remaining vague about which Clinton issues might be examined and what Sessions’ role would be. Sessions was “quite artful in addressing what is a politically fraught situation,” Clark added.

“The investigation into contributions to the Clinton Foundation is not campaign-related,” according to Harold Krent, dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology. “Thus, Sessions' possible appointment of a special counsel would not run afoul of his prior recusal declaration,” Krent told ABC News.

“I do not think it will be a big deal if career non-political prosecutors make the recommendation [to appoint a special counsel to investigate Clinton matters] and then Rod Rosenstein makes the final call,” said John Lauro, a former federal prosecutor and attorney with the Lauro Law Firm. Lauro said that he does not see any legal or ethical issues, adding that career prosecutors are presumably unaffected by Trump’s comments.

Related Topics

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events