Political News

Jeff Sessions sure looks like he is taking orders from Trump on a Clinton special counsel

Posted November 14, 2017 8:08 a.m. EST

— On November 2, in a radio interview, President Donald Trump said this: "The saddest thing is that because I'm the President of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI."

The following morning -- beginning at 6:57 a.m. -- he began a tweetstorm on the same topic. "Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn't looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems," he wrote.

He followed that tweet up with five more, including this one: "People are angry. At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper. The American public deserves it!"

Then he left for a 12-day trip to Asia -- a trip he returns from Wednesday.

On the eve of that return came news out of the Justice Department that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is considering the possibility of appointing a special counsel to look into allegations of wrongdoing regarding the 2010 sale of a uranium company to Russia -- which Hillary Clinton's State Department approved.

In a letter sent to House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd confirmed that Sessions had directed prosecutors to examine whether "any matters not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources, or whether any merit the appointment of a special counsel."

Here's the thing: This could all just be a big coincidence. Sessions might well have decided to look into the possibility of a special counsel for the Uranium One sale prior to Trump's tweets and public frustration with the Justice Department's refusal to look at the "real" issues from the 2016 campaign. And, word of the consideration of a special counsel might have coincidentally leaked on the day before Trump is set to return to Washington.

But, it's odd -- to say the least -- that Sessions decided that now was the time to look into the Clinton allegations. After all, Goodlatte had written two letters to the Justice Department -- one on July 27, the other on September 26 -- asking for the appointment of a special counsel to examine the uranium deal and other "matters that appear to be outside the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation."

The obvious answer for the question of "why now" is that Trump -- through Twitter and his public statements -- sufficiently ramped up the pressure on Sessions to start doing what he wants done.

Context matters here. Sessions has been fighting for his job since the day -- way back in early March -- that he recused himself from the FBI's investigation into Russia's attempted interference in the 2016 campaign and any potential collusion with the Trump campaign. That decision ultimately led to the appointment by deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of Mueller as special counsel overseeing the investigation.

Trump has made very clear that he is angry at Sessions over the recusal decision -- and lays much of the blame for the ongoing Russia investigation directly at the attorney general's feet. He told The New York Times that had Sessions informed him of his planned recusal,Trump would have picked someone else as his attorney general. Trump has referred to Sessions as "beleaguered" on Twitter.

In short, the President has gone way out of his way to make clear to Sessions that he's doing a bad job. And to suggest (and suggest again) that Sessions and the Department of Justice should spend a lot more time looking into allegations about the Obama administration uranium deal and Clinton's private email server.

Which is what Sessions is now at least thinking about doing.

But, wait, you say. Trump is Sessions' boss! Why can't he tell him what to do?!

Because the Justice Department is -- and long has been -- seen as an independent operator within the government. And, for good reason. The job of DOJ is to investigate and prosecute crimes and potential crimes without fear or favor. Even the appearance of White House involvement in how Justice does its job is seen as a major breach of protocol. (This LA Times explainer on why the Justice Department's independence matters so much is worth reading.)

The timing of Sessions' decision has to raise questions about Justice's vaunted independence from the executive branch. Of course, no special counsel has been appointed. Yet.

But, if Sessions does decide to go that route, he'll take a huge amount of flack from inside and outside the department for it.