Email #228: “outstanding oversight questions”?

When you wrote to Attorney General Sessions on Friday you told him: “you lead a Department over which the House Judiciary Committee has primary oversight jurisdiction” and “Congressional oversight is not a responsibility that we take lightly.” Although I am pleased to hear you reiterate these two essential facts, I am confused by how you are responding to your primary oversight responsibility.

In a New York Times interview last week President Trump accused the Justice Department of a wide range of inappropriateness. Regarding Special Counsel Mueller, the President said:

“Because I have done nothing wrong. A special counsel should never have been appointed in this case.”

He also accused Mueller of having a conflict of interest because Mueller applied for the position of FBI Director after the President fired James Comey:

“The next day, he is appointed special counsel. I said, what the hell is this all about? Talk about conflicts?”

Regarding acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, the President said:

“We have a director of the F.B.I., acting, who received $700,000, whose wife received $700,000 from, essentially, Hillary Clinton. ’Cause it was through [Virginia Governor] Terry [McAuliffe]. Which is Hillary Clinton…. McCabe’s wife. She got $700,000, and he’s at the F.B.I. I mean, how do you think that?”

Regarding Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, the President said:

“he gives me a letter, O.K., he gives me a letter about Comey. And by the way, that was a tough letter, O.K. Now, perhaps I would have fired Comey anyway, and it certainly didn’t hurt to have the letter, O.K. But he gives me a very strong letter, and now he’s involved in the case. Well, that’s a conflict of interest.”

Regarding Attorney General Sessions, the President said:

“Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else…. It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president.”

He also criticized Sessions’ Senate hearing:

“So Jeff Sessions, Jeff Sessions gave some bad answers…. he gave some answers that were simple questions and should have been simple answers, but they weren’t.”

Those simple answers included: “I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.” But the Washington Post reported on Friday that U.S. intelligence intercepted Russian Ambassador Kyslak’s communications to Moscow in which he describes speaking to Sessions about “campaign-related matters.” If the report is true, then the Attorney General committed perjury.

Finally, the President said of the entire Justice Department:

“Look, there are so many conflicts that everybody has.… There were many other conflicts that I haven’t said, but I will at some point.”

Each one of these allegations is concerning, and since your committee has primary oversight jurisdiction for them all, I would expect your letter to the Attorney General to have addressed at least some of them. And yet you did not mention any. Instead your letter focused not on the current administration but on the Obama administration: ­

“the Judiciary Committee sent letters to your predecessors as Attorney General, and to individual DOJ components, requesting answers to a multitude of questions concerning various issues of interest stemming from Judiciary hearings and oversight responsibilities.  Many of the inquiries remain unanswered, with some outstanding requests approaching two years overdue…. we write now asking you to rectify this situation, by helping the Judiciary Committee obtain answers to outstanding oversight questions.”

Though I admire your thoroughness in wishing to close two-year-old inquiries, is it appropriate to thank Attorney General Sessions for “giving this request priority”? What about your current oversight responsibilities? What about obtaining answers to current oversight questions? Is this how you demonstrate that oversight is not a responsibility that you take lightly–by ignoring current concerns while prioritizing inconsequential ones?

Email #193: “historic policies”?

I am relieved that Attorney General Sessions’ testimony before the Senate last week clarified what had appeared to be potential perjury during his confirmation hearings in January when he incorrectly stated that he had not had contact with Russian officials during the campaign. He said during his new testimony:

“I have never met with or had any conversation with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election in the United States. Further, I have no knowledge of any such conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign.”

He also clarified why he recused himself from the Russian collusion investigation, citing a specific Justice Department regulation, “28 cfr 45. 2,” which he read aloud:

“‘Unless authorized, no employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he had a personal or political relationship with any person involved in the conduct of an investigation’ that goes on to say for political campaign and it says if you have a close identification with an elected official or candidate arising from service as a principal adviser, you should not participate in an investigation of that campaign… This is the reason I recused myself: I felt I was required to under the rules of the Department of Justice and as a leader of the Department of Justice, I should comply with the rules obviously.”

While both of these clarifications are essential, the Attorney General refused to provide other critical information. When asked to report conversations he had with the President regarding Director Comey and his firing, Sessions answered:

“I’m not able to discuss with you or confirm or deny the nature of a private conversation that I may have had with the president on this subject or others.”

He repeated his refusal, citing Justice Department policy as he did for his recusal:

“I’m not able to discuss with you or confirm or deny the nature of a private conversation that I may have had with the president on this subject or others. I know this will be discussed, but that’s the rules that have been adhered to by the Department of Justice as you know.”

However, unlike his citing of “28 cfr 45. 2,” when asked which regulation he meant, he could not answer but only insisted: “I am not stonewalling. I am following the historic policies of the Department of Justice.” What “historic policies”? Senator Harris pressed the point before being interrupted:

“Did you not ask your staff to show you the policy that would be the basis for you refusing to answer the majority–”

As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and so as the individual most directly responsible for oversight of the Justice Department generally and the Attorney General specifically, could you please explain what “rules that have been adhered to by the Department of Justice” he could have meant? If no such regulations exist, could you please write to the Attorney General informing him so and request him to correct his misstatement?

I understand that you may personally agree with his refusal, but the question is on what grounds he refused. Also, in your legal opinion, if the Attorney General cited a non-existent policy as preventing him from answering a set of questions under oath, is that false testimony?

When he was a Senator during the 1999 impeachment trial, Sessions voted to convict President Clinton for making false statements under oath. A majority of the Senate did not agree, concluding that Clinton’s statement, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” while intentionally misleading, was not technically false.

During his hearing in January, Attorney General Sessions was asked:

“if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”

He answered:

“I’m not aware of any of those activities… I did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”

While his original statement is explicitly false—he had communications with the Russians twice—he explained last week what he actually meant. The American public now needs to know what Attorney General Sessions actually meant when he invented a Justice Department regulation in order to conceal information regarding the President’s potential obstruction of justice.