A recent report about President Trump’s struggle against the Russia investigation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the investigation contains an anecdote that could be evidence that Sessions has tried to obstruct justice.
The New York Times outlines in the piece Thursday night that four days before former FBI director James Comey was fired by Trump in May of 2017, one of Sessions’ aides approached a Congressional staffer to ask whether he had damaging information about Comey. The question was, as the Times writes, “part of an apparent effort to undermine the FBI director.”
Sessions wanted one negative article per day in the news about Comey, according to the report, which cites an unnamed source with knowledge of the meeting between the Sessions staffer and the Hill staffer. (A Justice Department spokeswoman flatly denied that Sessions ever sought dirt on Comey, telling the Times, “This did not happen and would not happen… Plain and simple.”)
When the story dropped Thursday night, Times reporter Michael Schmidt tweeted it out mentioning the anecdote about Sessions looking for dirt on Comey, which former White House counsel for President Obama and now board chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Norm Eisen retweeted, adding, “[T]ranslation: our reporting shows possible conspiracy to obstruct justice as well as possible obstruction itself.”
translation: our reporting shows possible conspiracy to obstruct justice as well as possible obstruction itself https://t.co/qyd8ahfRmr
— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) January 5, 2018
Since Trump has taken office, the phrase “obstruction of justice” has been a favorite of Washington politicos, often applied to the fact that Trump fired Comey while Comey was actively investigating the president and his campaign.
A former federal prosecutor recently described the buzzy phrase to The Washington Post as “impeding or otherwise instructing an official proceeding or the due administration of justice with an improper motive.” Some examples, he said, may include preventing witnesses from testifying, keeping certain evidence from coming to light, or simply telling someone to say or not to say certain things as part of an investigation.
Another important piece, the prosecutor said, is that the person who’s been accused of committing obstruction of justice “has to have the specific intention of actually impeding that ongoing federal investigation or Congressional inquiry.”
At the time Sessions sought to plant negative stories about Comey, Comey was still leading the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign had colluded with the Kremlin. At that point, Trump had also sought confirmation from Comey several times that Trump himself wasn’t being investigated and asked him to end the investigation into General Michael Flynn, who served as his National Security Adviser before resigning. Sessions’ efforts to find dirt and plant negative stories about Comey — if he did, in fact, attempt to do so — were efforts at the very least to undermine Comey’s credibility as the head of the investigation and thus discredit the Comey’s possible findings. It’s also possible that Sessions’ alleged actions constitute obstruction of justice.
Despite — or, perhaps, because of — Sessions’ potentially illegal efforts to undermine Comey, however, the Times reporting also reveals that Sessions tried to resign from his role as Attorney General. After Trump fired Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller. When Trump learned of the appointment, he reported blew up “erupted” at Sessions and demanded Sessions’ resignation.
But when he received the letter the next day, Trump sent it back with a handwritten note at the top saying, “Not accepted.”