President Trump is furious at his Attorney General. He’s steaming mad that Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Russia investigations and is going soft on Hilary Clinton.
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
What he doesn’t seem to have realized yet is that Sessions has recused himself from Clinton matters too. And he did it when there was still time for Trump to put a halt to the hiring process. If only Trump had listened to Sessions’ testimony at his confirmation hearing.
Let’s turn back the clock to January 10, 2017. Donald Trump had not even been sworn in as President. But Sessions was already facing questioning as part of the routine Senate confirmation process.
Within 10 minutes of taking questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions was asked by the panel’s Chairman, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), whether he could approach the Clinton issues impartially. Sessions replied:
Mr. Chairman, it was a highly contentious campaign. I, like a lot of people, made comments about the issues in that campaign. With regard to Secretary Clinton and some of the comments I made, I do believe that that could place my objectivity in question. I’ve given that thought.
I believe the proper thing for me to do, would be to recuse myself from any questions involving those kind of investigations that involve Secretary Clinton and that were raised during the campaign or to be otherwise connected to it.
The remainder of the exchange is worth quoting at length:
GRASSLEY: OK. I think, that’s—let me emphasize then with a follow up question. To be very clear, you intend to recuse yourself from both the Clinton e-mail investigation and any matters involving the Clinton Foundation, if there are any?
GRASSLEY: Let me follow up again, because it’s important. When you say you’ll recuse, you mean that you’ll actually recuse and the decision will therefore fall to, I assume, a deputy attorney general? I ask because after Attorney General Lynch met with President Clinton in Phoenix, she said she would, quote/unquote, “defer to the FBI,” but she never officially recused.
SESSIONS: No, she did not officially recuse. And there is a procedure for that, which I would follow. And I believe that would be the best approach for the country because we can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute. That’s not in any way that would suggest anything other than absolute objectivity. This country does not punish its political enemies, but this country ensures that no one is above the law.
There are some important threads running through the exchange. They are worth teasing out a bit:
First, impartiality and the appearance of impartiality are paramount values for the Attorney General of the United States. So much so that the hint of bias or predisposition is enough to compel recusal. It doesn’t matter if there is actual bias or objective evidence of bias. Why? If the Department’s decisions are viewed as politicized then fully half of the country, the half that holds opposing political views, will doubt the fairness and justice of the legal system. And that is a prescription for a downward spiral in the credibility of law enforcement.
Second, criminalizing political disputes is the path to ruin for democracy. Sessions understands that. If he didn’t understand the obverse, that politicizing criminal disputes is not healthy either, he almost certainly does now as the President tweet storms his anger at the Russia “witch hunt.”
Finally, recusal is a formal and serious process. Sessions honored it when he recused himself from the Russia investigations in March. He used a whole 209 words. Tellingly, he referred to “campaigns” plural in his recusal announcement: “I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States.”
But what’s that against 140 characters? Time will tell.