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Jeff Sessions kept resignation letter handy for meetings with Trump
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Job security has never been a perk of working for the Trump administration, but former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ position at the Justice Department was apparently so uncertain that he carried a resignation letter in his pocket every time he visited the White House for months.
Calling it quits
Sessions’ vulnerable footing within the Trump administration was just one of the stimulating details unearthed by the publication of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report on Thursday when Americans learned for certain that President Donald Trump never sought to collude with Russia. The details surrounding Sessions’ career prospects were revealed as part of the special counsel’s review of whether Trump obstructed justice by trying to influence the Russia investigation.
Special counsel investigators spoke with Jody Hunt, the then-attorney general’s chief of staff, who told them, “In light of the President’s frequent public attacks, Sessions prepared another resignation letter and for the rest of the year carried it with him in his pocket every time he went to the White House.”
Sessions provoked Trump’s disfavor after he recused himself from the Russia investigation in the earliest days of the administration. After speaking with ethics attorneys, Sessions elected to stay out of the federal probe because of his personal and political relationship to the 2016 Trump campaign.
However, Trump felt that this recusal was unnecessary, and the president unsuccessfully lobbied his attorney general to reverse his decision to disqualify himself from overseeing the Russia investigation.
Trump was joined by other legal experts who maintained that Sessions’ abstention was not legally required. National Review editor and former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy remains convinced that Sessions’ decision was “a mistake.”
McCarthy maintained that the regulations compelling Sessions to recuse himself only apply to criminal investigations — not a counterintelligence investigation. Prior to the establishment of the special counsel in May 2017, the FBI’s Russia probe was not a criminal inquiry, and Sessions was not obligated to bow out of the proceedings because of his ties to the Trump campaign.
Although the special counsel was technically a criminal matter, former chief counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee Victoria Toensing wrote, it was conducted like “a broad and vague counterintelligence probe, directing the special counsel to investigate ‘any links’ between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.”
If Sessions were expected to remove himself from the investigation, why was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein placed in charge of the proceedings? Rosenstein personally appealed to senior White House cabinet members to try to have Trump impeached after he fired former FBI director James Comey, and the deputy AG personally signed a series of highly controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrants authorizing the electronic monitoring of a Trump campaign aide in 2016.
Obviously, Sessions’ poor judgment bothered Trump, and in July 2017 he asked the then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to seek the AG’s resignation. According to Mueller, Priebus agreed to do so but never followed through with these orders.
Mueller’s report alleges that White House advisors eventually convinced Trump to back off of his resignation demands, but that didn’t stop the president from publicly criticizing Sessions. Using Twitter, Trump called his own attorney general “beleaguered” and “weak” for not pursuing charges against Hillary Clinton.
Over the next year, Trump regularly lambasted Sessions, openly questioning his decision to recuse himself in interviews and on social media. Meanwhile, Sessions kept his impromptu resignation letter close at hand, ready to call it quits at a moment’s notice.
Eventually, the president found a basis for dumping the former Alabama senator without connecting his decision to the Russia investigation. After the 2019 midterm elections, Sessions was replaced by Attorney General William Barr, an experienced federal prosecutor and former AG with the backbone and willpower amenable to Trump’s interests.
In the end, Mueller punted when it came to obstruction. “[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment,” his report states.
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