Democrats Claim Sessions' Role In Comey's Firing Violates Recusal Pledge

May 11, 2017
Originally published on May 14, 2017 7:44 am
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President Trump said today he made the decision to fire FBI Director James Comey on his own. This is a shift from the original White House statement, which said the president acted on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions role in Comey's firing has raised a lot of questions. That's because the attorney general promised months ago he would recuse himself from any investigation relating to the presidential campaign. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Attorney General Sessions wrote a letter to the president this week saying James Comey should be fired because the FBI needed a fresh start and a new director who would faithfully follow the rules. Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota found that deeply troubling. Franken told Senate colleagues it was the attorney general who was out of bounds.

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AL FRANKEN: Attorney General Sessions should not have had any involvement in this decision at all.

HORSLEY: By weighing in on the FBI director's fate, Franken said Sessions had betrayed his promise not to get involved in any investigation of last year's presidential campaign.

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FRANKEN: He recused himself, and yet, he inserted himself in this firing.

HORSLEY: Sessions' recusal came back in March after it was revealed that he had misled senators, including Franken, about his contacts with Russian operatives. Sessions insisted those contacts were innocent. But with the FBI investigating Russian meddling in last year's election and possible ties to the Trump campaign, Sessions promised to keep his distance.

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JEFF SESSIONS: I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.

HORSLEY: Law Professor John Q. Barrett of St. John's University describes that as a sweeping recusal. And given Justice Department rules against taking part in any investigation involving close associates, Barrett says it was the right call.

JOHN Q BARRETT: Because he was an early supporter of President Trump, obviously because he was nominated to the office he holds by President Trump, he has the kind of personal and political relationship that the recusal regulation does pertain to.

HORSLEY: A Justice Department spokesman argues that despite that recusal, there was no reason Sessions should not have weighed in on the decision to fire the FBI director. The spokesman says Sessions' recommendation was based on Comey's leadership, not the substance of any investigation. That argument doesn't wash with Barrett, a former Justice Department lawyer who served as associate counsel in the Iran-Contra investigation.

BARRETT: The problem is you can't sort of say I'm changing the director of the FBI for B through Z and pretend there's no A involved here. A is this investigation.

HORSLEY: Barrett says the attorney general showed a blind spot by ignoring that connection. He argues Sessions should not be involved in choosing a new director for the FBI and suggests the safest course might be to leave the acting director in place until the campaign probe is completed. Other legal experts disagree. Bruce Green of Fordham University's Center for Law and Ethics says it's possible to separate the questions of Comey's ability to lead the FBI and how the campaign investigation should be conducted. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders makes a similar case.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look, the FBI is doing a whole lot more than the Russia investigation. And I know everybody in this room would like to think that's the FBI's sole responsibility. But that's a - probably one of the smallest things that they've got going on their plate in the 20,000 employees that work there.

HORSLEY: And Sanders says Sessions should absolutely play a role in helping to choose Comey's successor. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.