Tag Archives: Rosenstein

Sessions’ Testimony Evaluated – Part 1

Given the speed with which events overrun, and overwrite, memories, I am going to devote a lot of words to the testimony of Jefferson B. Sessions III, attorney general of the United States, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 13, 2017. This analysis is based on the transcript of the hearing published at http://politi.co/2rtgQJf with correction of obvious typos. A full evaluation is going to require multiple posts, so please bear with me. I think this worth doing because of the gravity of the issues raised.

Note at the outset one unusual feature of the hearing that distinguishes it from normal investigative legal work: both Chairman Burr and Vice Chair Warner go on at some length to detail the areas of inquiry, including specific questions they intend to ask the witness. This is part of the politesse of the political process that deters the kind of relentless interrogation that true investigative work involves. This was well illustrated when Senator McCain leapt into action to alert the Chairman that Senator Kamala Harris was being too aggressive in her very lawyer-like cross-examination of Sessions about the nature of his preparation, or lack of it, for testifying.

Also of special interest was Warner’s commendation of the Chairman about his remark at the end of the Comey hearing the week before that, given the “pattern of administration officials refusing to answer public, unclassified questions about allegations about the president in this investigation,” it was “not acceptable for [witnesses] to come forward without answers.” Later, Sessions would refuse to answer multiple questions on the grounds that the President should be given a prior opportunity to invoke Executive Privilege regarding answers to questions involving conversations with him and any member of the Cabinet and, likely, any member of White House staff.

Sessions’ opening remarks asserted that he did not remember what would in all events have been a casual contact with Russian Ambassador, and known Russian spy, Sergey Kislyak because they were both invited to Trump’s first foreign policy speech preceded by a private reception for perhaps two dozen people. This description is not implausible in the context of Washington political processes, but the question, not asked by any Committee member, was why was the Russian Ambassador invited in the first place to this small private and exclusive gathering that was attended by Trump himself, however briefly?

Sessions then undertook to address his response to Senator Franken during the AG’s confirmation hearing. The exact question posed, after a short recital of current press reports, was

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?”

Sessions never answered that question. Instead, he said:

Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.

During his Intelligence Committee testimony, Sessions entered a sweeping denial of any discussions with anyone about campaign interference, and a flat denial of knowledge of such conversations by anyone else in the Trump campaign organization. This he remembered quite clearly. Then, referring to Senator Franken’s question about then-current press reports, Sessions said:

That was the context in which I was asked the question and in this that context my answer was a fair and correct response to the charge as I understood it. I was responding to the allegation that surrogates had been meeting with Russians on a regular basis. It simply did not occur to me to go further than the context and to list any conversations that I may have had with Russians in routine situations as I had many routine meetings with other foreign officials.

On its face this is not a completely implausible explanation. However, there are other relevant facts that raise questions about plausibility.

Sessions was sworn in as Attorney General on February 9. His testimony maintained that until his formal recusal on March 2, a period of three full weeks, he received no information or briefings related to the Russia investigation other than discussions related to press reports that might bear on the need to recuse himself.

But, most curiously, Sessions expressly denied that his recusal had anything to do with possible campaign wrongdoing. Instead, he claimed his recusal was based entirely on a federal regulation, 28 CFR § 45.2, that forbids a DOJ employee from participating in a criminal investigation of an organization if the employee had a personal relationship with the target. A waiver is possible if the employee’s superior makes certain findings but there was no chance of a legitimate waiver for Sessions who stated he believed the regulation “required” his recusal. Sessions then declared that such a recusal could nevertheless not be allowed to stop him from running the Department of Justice and, therefore, he acted properly in presenting to the President

my concerns and those of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the ongoing leadership issues at the FBI as stated in my letter recommending the removal of Mr. Comey along with the Deputy Attorney General’s memorandum on that issue…. Those represent a clear statement of my views. I adopted Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein’s points he made in his memorandum and made my recommendation. It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render the attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations.

This statement raises more fundamental questions that were never addressed by the Committee.

First, if, as Sessions claims, the recusal was based solely on the “campaign relationship” issue covered by the regulations, why did it take three full weeks for him to recuse himself? The governing regulation is only a few paragraphs and is very explicit. The President was reportedly furious about Sessions’ recusal and tweeted about it. What went on during that three weeks?

Second, whatever the asserted reason for the recusal was, if the recusal was from the Russia investigation, defined as the question whether there were inappropriate/unlawful contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians, being led by FBI Director Comey, how can Sessions, in the guise of managing the Department of Justice, justify recommending the firing of the person heading the investigation? Sessions appears to believe that he is free to do anything he chooses in the Russia investigation because his recusal was based on something other than his interactions with “representatives” of the Russian government. It is difficult to imagine a court accepting such twisted reasoning which effectively vitiates the recusal as regards anything related to the Trump-Russia investigation.

This concludes consideration of Sessions’ direct testimony. In the next installment, I will take up the questioning by the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Trump Lawyers Up As Obfuscation Engulfs White House

CNN reported on March 7 that Trump White House lawyers up. http://cnn.it/2qZYxvJ. The story was that the White House had retained 26 attorneys on the White House legal staff, an increase of four over President Obama’s legal team at the outset of his administration. There was nothing particularly striking about the report, given the breadth of Trump’s conflicts of interest and the complications encountered with his Muslim ban and other allegedly urgent needs to man up and fulfill his campaign promises. Moreover, the White House is engaged in untold complex problems that implicate serious legal issues, often at the border of known practice or precedent so having some rational thinkers close by for consultation is not a bad arrangement.

However, more recently Trump has lawyered up again. It is unclear who is paying for the new counsel, but according to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Trump: “obviously, was aware of Senator Graham’s suggestion [that Trump’s business relationship with Russia be investigated] after he made it today and he’s fine with that. He has no business in Russia. He has no connections to Russia. So he welcomes that,” Spicer said.” In fact, he is [sic]already charged a leading law firm in Washington, D.C., to send a certified letter to Senator Graham to that point that he has no connections to Russia,” Spicer said.”

Several points of interest arise from that statement. Spicer is flatly parroting the Trump mantra that he is free of Russian entanglements of any kind. If nothing else, Spicer is a loyal soldier following orders. However, his statements of “fact” regarding Trump’s business connections with Russia are contradicted by earlier well-circulated statements by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and alter ego in the Trump business empire.

Moreover, it is not clear why anyone should conclude that a hired law firm’s “certified” letter will settle the question of Trump’s involvement with Russia. The “certified” refers only to a service offered by the U.S. Postal Service; it does not add credibility or probative force to the contents of the communication. And the law firm’s affirmation of Trump’s Russia connections, or lack of them, cannot possibly be regarded as a substitute for an independent investigation of the question whether such connections exist. Even if the law firm were to conduct a massive and thorough “investigation,” it would necessarily be relying on Trump and his associates’ version of the truth and could not possibly have access to all the documents being reviewed by the relevant congressional investigating committees, not to mention the FBI’s independent investigation. Given Trump’s relentless history of lying about matters big and small, there is little joy to be found in a law firm’s sign off on anything he says, especially when he is paying the firm (or has misdirected public funds to pay the firm).

Oh, one other thing, the fact that the unnamed law firm is “leading,” per Spicer’s description, will impress no one. There are more “leading” law firms in Washington alone than there are Starbucks stores.

That brings us to the firing of James Comey as Director of the FBI. The facts on this sordid episode are not all in yet, but we are told that in the days before he was fired, Comey had sought subpoenas from the Eastern District Court in Virginia for documents related to now-fired Michael Flynn, thereby indicating an apparent escalation in the seriousness and breadth of the FBI investigation into election meddling by Trump and/or his associates. Moreover, Comey had reportedly just asked for more resources to carry out the investigation from the same person who supposedly recommended on his own initiative that Comey be fired. The FBI refused to comment on that point, but, according to the New York Times, “Sarah Isgur Flores, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said “the idea that he asked for more funding” for the Russia investigation was “totally false.” She did not elaborate.” http://nyti.ms/2pkwBWL.

Beyond those curious circumstances, we have the actual documents that executed the dismissal of Comey.

The opening line of the dismissal letter states that the President has “received the attached letters … recommending your dismissal,” as if the letters were a surprise that was slipped under the door of the Oval Office while the President was watching TV. The second paragraph states the President’s concurrence in the judgment of the Department of Justice, again implying that DOJ came up with all this on its own and that Trump is simply acceding to their recommendations.

But most remarkable, perhaps, is this bizarre statement:

“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.” [emphasis added]

At the very same moment he is firing the Director for misconduct in office, Trump tries to borrow from whatever may remain of Comey’s credibility by saying, in effect, “look, he said I wasn’t guilty so I’m not guilty!” Can anyone not hallucinating believe that the insertion of the gratuitous claim that Comey had thrice absolved Trump of suspicion was inserted for any reason other than the guild the lily of Trump’s denials of involvement?

Beyond that, the inclusion of the claim that Comey in effect gave Trump a clean bill of health in the Russia investigation raises many questions that must be answered, under oath. One is, when exactly, and under what circumstances, did the Director of the FBI give such personal assurances to the President, if in fact he did? Comey is now in the position of an attorney whose client has publicly claimed the attorney gave unethical advice or otherwise violated the law in connection with his representation. The attorney must be allowed to defend himself and so must Comey. He should be called very quickly as a public witness by the relevant congressional committees to explain whether he did what Trump claims or whether Trump, in keeping with past practice, is flat out lying.

Now we come to the recommendation from Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions III in which he recites his great dedication to “discipline, integrity, and the rule of law.” That, notwithstanding that he had previously recused himself, for lying to Congress about his own contacts with Russian operatives, from the investigation Comey was leading into the Trump-Russia connections. Apparently his having recused himself regarding the investigation was not seen as an obstacle to his participation in dismissing the leader of that investigation. This screams out for explanation. Was the recusal a head-fake to thwart an investigation into Sessions’ lies about his meetings with Russia operatives? Surely someone at the Justice Department remembered his recusal. You would think an explanation of his participation in the dismissal would have been offered by now. The total arrogance of these people is palpable.

Finally, there is the recommendation memorandum, also dated May 9, 2017, from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, to whom Comey reported and who had been on the job about two weeks. It must have been a busy day at the White House and DOJ for all these letters bearing the same date, May 9, 2017, to have been produced.

The document begins by praising Comey’s skills as a speaker and that “he deserves our appreciation for his public service.” The letter then acknowledges that Rosenstein and Sessions have discussed Comey’s handling of the “conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails” and states Rosenstein’s inability to understand Comey’s refusal to “accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.”

The Memorandum then recites the errors made by Comey that in Rosenstein’s view usurped the authority of the Attorney General (then Loretta Lynch): (1) announcing Comey’s conclusion that the case against Clinton was being closed without prosecution, and (2) holding a press conference to “gratuitously” release “derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation,” and (3) using inappropriate words, like “conceal” in a subsequent letter to Congress.

The press conference to which Rosenstein objects occurred on July 5, 2016, just over nine months before Comey’s dismissal without notice or opportunity to address the charges against him. The letter to Congress was sent on October 28, 2016, before the 2016 election and just under three months before Trump’s inauguration. And until May 9, 2017, Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation and his public disclosures met with Trump’s enthusiastic approval. Perhaps in an attempt to counter the effect of those facts, Rosenstein’s memorandum recites excerpts of letters from seven former Attorneys General, Deputy Attorneys General and other unnamed Justice Department officials who concur in the condemnation of Comey’s actions, leading to the conclusion that “Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.”

More questions arise. When were these letters from former DOJ leaders written? No dates are given. How were they solicited? By whom? Are we to believe they were just lying around waiting for some enterprising Attorney General to cite them as authority for dismissing Comey? White House Deputy Press Secretary Sanders has stated that Trump was considering firing Comey as early as January 21 but her explanation for the delay is a mish-mash of incoherent blather.

To be clear, and in conclusion, I am not arguing that Comey’s conduct in 2016 was correct. I strongly believe he inappropriately influenced the 2016 election and helped elect Donald Trump. Trump rewarded that help by firing him because Comey was showing a frightening (to Trump) independence in pursuing the Trump-Russia connection, an independence for which Comey had a reputation. Trump views loyalty as the most important trait and Comey, in Trump’s eyes, now looked like a traitor. So, “you’re fired!”

But this is not reality TV. Trump has doubled down on thwarting the Russia investigation. He is so arrogant that today, less than 24 hours after firing Comey, Trump met at the White House with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak while excluding U.S. press.

The firing of Comey is, in my judgment, a non-survivable mistake that should, by itself, lead to Trump’s impeachment. It may take a while, but there is no way this interference can be tolerated in a democratic society. The issue is not whether Comey handled the Clinton investigation correctly or who objected or applauded at the time. The question is whether a sitting president can be permitted to directly interfere with an investigation of serious impropriety through the intervention of a hostile foreign power in the manner of his election. The answer must be ‘NO.’

Trump better get some more lawyers. He’s going to need them.