No event in the Trump presidency may be of as much historical import than Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself “from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States”, as was detailed in Sessions’ recusal statement on March 2, 2017.
Sessions’ decision to recuse removed him from overseeing the Russia investigation and eventually resulted in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointing Robert S. Mueller as special counsel in May 2017 after Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Sessions’ recusal has drawn President Trump’s private and public ire. The actions accompanying that ire and the pressure to reverse the recusal are being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, The New York Times reports.
Investigators have pressed current and former White House officials about Mr. Trump’s treatment of Mr. Sessions and whether they believe the president was trying to impede the Russia investigation by pressuring him. The attorney general was also interviewed at length by Mr. Mueller’s investigators in January. And of the four dozen or so questions Mr. Mueller wants to ask Mr. Trump, eight relate to Mr. Sessions. Among them: What efforts did you make to try to get him to reverse his recusal?
Sessions had been under pressure to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation soon after his confirmation, due to his involvement in the Trump campaign and the March 1st report by the Washington Post that he had not been truthful in his confirmation hearing about his contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. The Times reports that Trump disapproved of Sessions’ decision and told aids he needed a loyalist overseeing the Russia investigation.
Mr. Trump immediately recognized the potential effect of a recusal. He had his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, lobby Mr. Sessions to retain oversight of the inquiry.
To Justice Department officials close to Mr. Sessions, the request by the president made through Mr. McGahn was inappropriate, particularly because it was clear to them that Mr. Sessions had to step aside. After Mr. Sessions told Mr. McGahn that he would follow the Justice Department lawyers’ advice to recuse himself from all matters related to the election, Mr. McGahn backed down. Mr. Sessions recused himself on March 2.
When Mr. Trump learned of the recusal, he asked advisers whether the decision could be reversed, according to people briefed on the matter. Told no, Mr. Trump argued that Eric H. Holder Jr., President Barack Obama’s first attorney general, would never have recused himself from a case that threatened to tarnish Mr. Obama. The president said he expected the same loyalty from Mr. Sessions.
The Attorney General’s decision to recuse deeply strained his previously close friendship with the President. He was given the cold shoulder for two days before being sent to Mar-a-Lago to discuss the travel ban with an irate Donald Trump. Instead of discussing the ban, Trump pressured Sessions to reverse his decision, a confrontation newly reported by the Times. It was an “unusual and inappropriate” request which Sessions refused.
In the months since, the President has dwelled on Sessions’ recusal, telling the Times that he would not have nominated Sessions as AG if he had known Sessions would not be overseeing the Russia investigation. He demanded that his then chief of staff Reince Preibus get Sessions to resign. When Preibus was informed that the President would have to call Sessions and demand his resignation personally, he sat back and waited.
Trump did not call Sessions, instead tweeting about him.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2017
Mueller has informed Trump’s lawyers that he is interested in the President’s conversations with Preibus and his public criticisms of Session. The special counsel’s interest in Attorney General Sessions role in the investigation, as a witness to possible obstruction, indicates that the investigation into obstruction is wider than initially understood. The questions surrounding Comey’s firing are well known but Trump’s actions towards Sessions and the implication of those actions are clearly of interest to the special counsel.
Though he has continued to criticize his AG on Twitter, as recently as Wednesday tweeting that he wishes he had picked someone else for the job, President Trump has backed off his demand for Sessions’ resignation after Republicans have informed him that they will not confirm a new Attorney General. The New York Times also points out that reversing a decision to recuse is highly unusual.
Prosecutors rarely go back on recusals. Legal experts said that occasionally, prosecutors who handed off a case to colleagues over concerns about a possible financial conflict of interest would take the decision back after confirming none existed. But the experts said they could think of no instance in which a prosecutor stepped aside from a case in circumstances similar to Mr. Sessions’s. Justice Department guidelines on recusal are in place to prevent the sort of political meddling the president tried to engage in, they said.
Why It Matters
The question central to the obstruction portion of the investigation is “What was Trump thinking when he fired Comey?” The question that follows is “What was Trump thinking when he pressured Sessions to reverse his decision to recuse?”
The President absolutely has the right to fire the FBI director, his Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General for cause. He does not have the right to fire them to thwart an investigation into wrongdoing by himself, his children, and his campaign. His conversations with those around him regarding Sessions’ recusal will be vital for Mueller’s team to determine if Donald Trump intended to obstruct justice by having what he viewed as a loyalist run the investigation, which has resulted in three individuals close to his campaign pleading guilty and the fourth facing 305 years in prison.
Furthermore, as has often been pointed out, Donald Trump’s tweets are his official Presidential account and can be used as evidence in court to demonstrate his frame of mind and his intentions. For a helpful timeline of the Sessions’ recusal, see this article from The News Blender.