ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Fired FBI Director James Comey didn't mince words when he called the president a liar before the Senate intelligence committee yesterday. Comey was less direct in his criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Comey refused to answer a series of questions about Sessions' meetings with Russians in the open session. Sessions has recused himself from the Russia probe, leaving the legal investigation in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us now. And, Carrie, do we know about what the special counsel Mueller is investigating?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Robert Mueller's looking into Russian interference in last year's presidential election and whether anyone in the Trump campaign acted as a middleman or more. In fact, two sources tell me before the deputy attorney general tapped Mueller to be the special counsel he'd been on the shortlist to become the next FBI director. That would have been a heavy lift because he had already served 12 years in that job, but the White House was willing to try.
And, Robert, we've learned this week the special counsel's been quietly building an all-star legal team. He hired one of the most respected lawyers in the Justice Department, Michael Dreeben. One DOJ veteran told me today Dreeben is the guy who gets a criminal conviction to stick. The special counsel's eventually going to want to hear from the Trump campaign aides who met with Russians. That includes the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
SIEGEL: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Does that mean that the attorney general's in trouble?
JOHNSON: Well, too soon to say, Robert. In his testimony Thursday, Comey said even before Jeff Sessions recused himself the FBI thought he would, citing facts Comey couldn't discuss in public that would hurt Sessions' ability to oversee the Russia case. The FBI has been looking into whether Sessions had another meeting with Russians at the Mayflower Hotel last year. The Justice Department flatly denies that. There's also a renewed sense the special counsel might be looking at whether President Trump may have obstructed justice when he fired James Comey. Sessions could be a witness in that investigation, Robert, because he was one of the guys the president ushered out of the Oval Office so he could talk privately with Comey.
SIEGEL: Yeah. There have been a lot of media reports in the last few weeks about whether the attorney general might be on the way out, leaving the Justice Department after just a few months. What do you think the odds are of that?
JOHNSON: Well, sources are telling me Trump has been very angry with Jeff Sessions for recusing himself in the Russia investigation to begin with, lots of profane conversations and yelling. Sessions actually offered to resign, even though his friends say he doesn't want to leave, but Trump has refused to accept that resignation. The White House waited a few days this week before it finally formally expressed some confidence in the attorney general. That bears watching. But one big question here - would the White House really want to have to confirm a new FBI director and a new attorney general so early in its administration?
SIEGEL: Now, Sessions, who was a senator from Alabama until he became AG, is scheduled to deliver Senate testimony on Tuesday as part of the annual budget appropriations process. Any idea what the attorney general will say or be questioned about...
JOHNSON: You know...
SIEGEL: ...Beyond the budget?
JOHNSON: (Laughter) I think Jeff Sessions is going to want to talk about the budget and nobody else at the hearing will. He's going to have to defend himself. He - to say he didn't have any more undisclosed meetings with the Russians. He's going to have to answer questions about the scope of his recusal from this Russia investigation and why, if he was recused, he recommended James Comey, the FBI director, be fired. Finally, Robert, he may use the testimony to promote his agenda at the Justice Department, which has included more stiff penalties for drug crimes and less emphasis on civil rights.
SIEGEL: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.