March 03, 2017
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ past meetings with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. have scrambled where Democrats and Republicans stand on the need for recusals and special prosecutors in politically charged investigations.
Democrats were outraged Thursday after reports about Sessions’ meetings in July and September with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak seemed to contradict his assertion in his January confirmation hearing that he had not interacted with Russian officials during the campaign. Democrat congressional leaders quickly began calling for a special prosecutor to take over any investigation into Russian hacking.
Although several prominent Republicans — including Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Sen. Rob Portman — have joined Democrats in their calls for a recusal in any investigation, other GOP lawmakers sided with the White House and dismissed allegations of impropriety against Sessions as a partisan attack.
Several of Sessions’ Republican defenders, such as Iowa Rep. Steve King, had excoriated the Obama administration for its refusal to appoint a special prosecutor in its criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private emails.
And many of Sessions’ Democratic detractors who are now calling for a special prosecutor denied the need for one when questions were raised about Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s ability to remain impartial while investigating a former Cabinet member and party standard-bearer.
Sessions has offered to recuse himself “whenever it’s appropriate” amid calls from Democrats for him to step back from any investigation related to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election.
But many prominent Democrats pressured him to go further. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer both demanded Sessions’ resignation over what other Democrats have described as potential perjury.
An aide to Rep. Elijah Cummings, top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, told the Washington Examiner that the Clinton email case and Sessions’ previously undisclosed contact with the Russian ambassador are completely different situations because Lynch’s controversial actions were not related to the central premise of the investigation in question: Clinton’s emails.
“In terms of recusal, the difference is that a thorough investigation in this case will examine the attorney general’s own actions – his contacts with the Russians at the time he worked on the Trump campaign – while Attorney General Lynch had nothing to do with the underlying facts being investigated in the Clinton email investigation,” the aide said. That aide also clarified that Cummings is not calling for a special prosecutor in the Russian hacking probe but, rather, calling for Sessions’ resignation from the Justice Department.
Pelosi also denied any similarities between the Clinton email case and the Sessions Russia case for different reasons, even though in both situations, the opposition party was calling for investigative independence amid perceived political bias.
The House minority leader said Thursday that Lynch’s private meeting with Clinton’s husband aboard her private jet just days before the Justice Department closed its criminal investigation of the Democratic presidential nominee was not cause for any corrective measures but argued Sessions’ confirmation hearing comments were cause for the attorney general’s removal.
“There couldn’t be a starker difference,” Pelosi said of the two cases. “Attorney General Lynch had a social encounter, serendipitous, some might say, that the former president of the United States came by to say hello and they discussed their grandchildren.”
“She did not have a major role in the Hillary Clinton campaign,” Pelosi added.
At the height of the controversy over Lynch’s private meeting with Bill Clinton — which would have remained secret had a local reporter near the Phoenix tarmac not stumbled upon the scene — Schumer defended Lynch against allegations of impropriety.
“She has said nothing was discussed related to the investigation. You have two choices — to say this didn’t matter or she’s lying,” the New York Democrat said at the time.
However, Schumer said Thursday that “there cannot even be a scintilla of doubt” about an attorney general’s impartiality in matters of law enforcement as he argued that Sessions should step down as attorney general.
When asked whether a special prosecutor was needed to investigate Clinton’s emails in August 2016, then-White House press secretary Josh Earnest denied the need for one and defended the Justice Department’s ability to conduct probes without political interference.
“I can tell you that President Obama and the administration have complete confidence in the independent career prosecutors at the Department of Justice and the FBI who devoted significant time and attention to investigating Secretary Clinton’s email practices,” Earnest said during the Aug. 24 daily briefing. “That was work they did without any sort of political interference. These are dedicated professionals — I don’t think anybody would call into question the political independence of somebody like FBI Director [James] Comey.”
Democrats would go on to vilify Comey just a few weeks later, after he supplemented his congressional testimony on the closure of the Clinton email case by publicizing a secondary inquiry into newly uncovered emails roughly one week before the election.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday sent a letter to the Justice Department requesting a criminal investigation into whether he committed perjury when he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had not interacted with Russian officials in his capacity as a Trump campaign surrogate.
The move mirrored an unsuccessful push by House Republicans in August 2016 to have the Justice Department investigate whether Hillary Clinton committed perjury when she denied mishandling classified information in earlier testimony to the House Select Committee on Benghazi. FBI Director Comey later clarified that Clinton had indeed mishandled emails that were marked classified at the time they passed through her basement server.
A number of lawmakers who were asked to clarify their conflicting positions on the attorney general’s integrity in the Clinton email case and the Russian hacking case did not respond to requests for comment.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, who slammed Sessions on social media Wednesday evening by claiming she had never met with or spoken to the Russian ambassador during her decade on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was later forced to admit that she did have some level of contact with the Russians after reporters unearthed years-old tweets suggesting she had indeed interacted with the Russian ambassador.
“Claire has never met one-on-one with the ambassador, and never received a call from him. She did attend a group meeting about adoptions with other Senators, and had a brief proactive call with the ambassador amid calls to several other parties to the Iran nuclear deal,” an aide to McCaskill told the Examiner. “Attorney General Sessions, on the other hand, misled the Senate under oath.”
Her defense echoed a rapidly evolving message from congressional Democrats who moved in lockstep to criticize Sessions on Wednesday night and Thursday morning. After first expressing deep concerns about the nature of Sessions’ contact with the Russian ambassador, McCaskill and other Democrats ultimately argued the problem was not the meetings themselves but the fact that Sessions denied having any contact with Russians when asked about it directly during his confirmation hearing in January.