WASHINGTON ― A group of Democratic senators, led by Martin Heinrich (N.M.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), are urging the Justice Department’s watchdog to investigate Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ role in the firing of James Comey as FBI director.
“It is clear that Attorney General Sessions had an active role in the termination of Director Comey,” the 11 senators wrote in a letter to the Justice Department inspector general Tuesday. “This seems to be in direct violation of Attorney General Sessions’ recusal from ‘any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.’”
“At the time of his termination, Director Comey was actively leading the F.B.I.’s investigations into both the attempts by the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential campaign, and the ties of members/employees/representatives of the Trump Campaign had, or have, with the Russian government or Russian intelligence services,” they added.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the senators’ letter.
Sessions promised to recuse himself from Justice Department investigations relating to the 2016 election in May, after he admitted that during his confirmation hearings, he did not disclose contacts he’d had with the Russian ambassador last year.
The New York Times reported that senior White House and Justice Department officials “had been working on building a case” against Comey, and “Sessions had been charged with coming up with reasons to fire him.”
On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that President Donald Trump personally asked Comey to shut down the FBI investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his ties to Russian officials, according to a memo written by Comey about the February meeting. Sessions was not present at that meeting.
Sessions is now, along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, leading the search for the next FBI director.
Stephen Gillers, a New York University School of Law professor specializing in legal ethics, said Sessions “reneged on his recusal promise to the Senate” by being part of Comey’s firing, although he said the attorney general could be involved in choosing his replacement in a limited capacity.
“[I]nterviews of candidates may include discussion of their views of the Russia investigation ― how to do it, whether there should be a special prosecutor, perhaps immunity questions and timing ― and Sessions must have no role in and no inside knowledge of those conversations,” Gillers said. “This is not a perfect solution, however, because Trump, not Sessions, chooses the FBI director. While Trump should limit any questions he may have to a candidate’s experience and general views about the Bureau and law enforcement ethos and priorities, we may not know if he asks more pointed questions.”
The White House said Monday it was comfortable with Sessions’ role in the search.
“It is imperative that the American people have faith in the institutions that are investigating the influence a hostile foreign power may have had on our presidential campaign, election, and the current administration of President Trump,” the Democratic senators wrote in their letter. “We believe the Attorney General’s involvement in the termination of Director Comey has injected the exact ‘partiality’ in these investigations he claimed to wish to avoid.”
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