On March 2, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Session recused himself from any investigations into the 2016 presidential campaign. This left his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, in charge of the probe into Russian meddling in the election and the possibility of illegal coordination with Donald Trump’s campaign. Not only is Sessions prohibited from making decisions about the investigation, he is barred from responding to queries from Congress or the media about them. Yet despite his recusal, Sessions has found ways to wade into the investigation. In some instances, experts see a clear violation; in others, a series of improper comments and acts whose cumulative effect is that the attorney general is, in fact, a player in the Russia investigation.
Sessions has also promised, under oath, to recuse himself from any investigations into Hillary Clinton that arose during the heated 2016 election. As a key member of Trump’s campaign, which for months pushed the idea that Clinton should be imprisoned for various alleged crimes, Sessions said at his confirmation hearing that he would formally recuse himself from investigations into matters like Clinton’s private email server and family foundation—a promise his office says he intends to keep. But again, there are signs Sessions is meddling.
Sessions’ recusal in March nearly cost him his job. As the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller gets closer to Trump and his top aides, Sessions is under increasing pressure to protect Trump and his inner circle from the investigation. Despite his recusal, Sessions appears to be using his formal powers as the nation’s top law enforcement officer and his bully pulpit to shield the president by discrediting his own department’s investigations. As Republicans in Congress mount new attacks on Mueller’s probe, including accusations of bias by FBI investigators, Sessions’ actions and comments legitimize their claims.
Here’s a timeline of Sessions’ interference in investigations he’s recused from.
March 30, 2017: Sessions says the Justice Department should prosecute leakers. “This has got to end, and it will probably take some convictions to put an end to it,” he tells Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly in an interview. This causes alarm among some Democrats because the most prominent leaks were related to the Russia investigation. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee send a letter to Sessions the next day noting, “Of course, most of the alleged leaks in question are related to ongoing investigations about contact between President Trump’s advisors and Putin’s Russia,” and asking the department for the parameters of his recusal. (The Justice Department does not reply until January 2018, when it sends a short letter declining to answer their questions.)
May 5, 2017: An aide to Sessions seeks dirt on FBI Director James Comey, whose bureau is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, from a congressional staffer. Sessions reportedly wants one negative article about Comey per day in the media. When news of this meeting breaks in the New York Times in January 2018, Sessions’ spokeswoman denies that it occurred.
May 8, 2017: Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, meet with Trump to discuss firing Comey. Rosenstein reportedly agrees to draft a memo that would justify dismissing the FBI director. Rosenstein is also given a copy of a letter Trump and his top aide Stephen Miller drafted the previous weekend which, according to the Times‘ January report, alleges that the Russia investigation was “fabricated and politically motivated.”
May 9, 2017: Trump fires Comey. Rosenstein’s memo and a letter of support from Sessions are used to justify the firing. But Trump admits in the days ahead that he was trying to shut down the Russia investigation by firing Comey.
June 30, 2017: Sessions appears on Fox & Friends, where he answers questions about Mueller’s investigation, even though his recusal prohibits him from responding to media inquiries about the probe.
November 13, 2017: A letter reveals that Sessions has personally asked top prosecutors to look into matters that congressional Republicans have for months been pushing the Justice Department to investigate. The letter was written by Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who in July sent Sessions a list of issues related to the Clinton and Trump campaigns that he wanted a new special counsel to look into. Boyd does not specify the matters that Sessions has green-lighted for further investigation, but he names the Uranium One and the Clinton Foundation probes as examples of issues that congressional Republicans have asked the department to explore. “[T]hese senior prosecutors will report directly to the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, as appropriate,” the letter says. In the following weeks, reports trickle out that the department is once again investigating Clinton’s email server, her family’s foundation, and the debunked scandal surrounding the Uranium One deal.
January 22, 2018: Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray speak with Trump at the White House about missing text messages between senior FBI agent Peter Strzok and bureau attorney Lisa Page. Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team last summer when his texts with Page, with whom he was romantically involved, were revealed to include disparaging comments about Trump. Strzok, who also worked on the investigation into Clinton’s private email server, has become a target of Republicans trying to paint the Mueller investigation as a partisan witch hunt.
That night, Sessions issues a statement declaring, “We will leave no stone unturned to confirm with certainty why these text messages are not now available to be produced and will use every technology available to determine whether the missing messages are recoverable from another source.” He personally speaks with the department’s inspector general and says that a review into what happened is underway. (The messages, missing due to a glitch that affected thousands of FBI phones, are recovered days later.)
January 24, 2018: Sessions speaks twice on the phone with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about Trump’s desire to release a classified memo that he believes will discredit the Mueller investigation, according to the Washington Post. The four-page document, drafted at the behest of House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), reportedly makes the case that the Russia investigation is tainted because the FBI used the Steele dossier to obtain a warrant to spy on Trump campaign aide Carter Page—a warrant Rosenstein approved an application to extend last spring.
January 26, 2018: Sessions lends credence to the Republican voices questioning the integrity of the Mueller investigation and FBI agents at a speech in Norfolk, Va. Without mentioning the Nunes memo or the text messaging scandal, he speaks in favor of “eliminating political bias or favoritism—in either direction—from our investigations and prosecutions.” He goes on to say that when members of Congress “learn of a problem and start asking questions, that is a good thing. Sunlight truly is the best disinfectant.” Breitbart News calls Sessions’ remarks a “veiled reference to the Strzok-Page scandal.”
February 2, 2018: Sessions issues a statement following the public release of Nunes memo, again inserting himself into a political fight over the legitimacy of the Russia investigation. “Congress has made inquiries concerning an issue of great importance for the country and concerns have been raised about the Department’s performance,” he said, adding, “I will forward to appropriate DOJ components all information I receive from Congress regarding this. I am determined that we will fully and fairly ascertain the truth.” Sessions’ comments lend credence to Republican claims of bias in an investigation Sessions is supposed to stay away from. They are also out of step with the warnings from the Justice Department and FBI that the memo is reckless and contains “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”