Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team interviewed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for several hours last week, according to a Tuesday report by the New York Times.
The news was expected, but the implications differ from most of the special counsel’s interviews. Despite Sessions’s recusal from oversight over the Mueller investigation, as attorney general, he still has oversight over the FBI and has been increasingly responsive to President Trump and conservatives’ criticisms of the bureau.
And now, this lengthy interview with the special counsel’s team may well have given Sessions a better understanding about just what, exactly, Mueller is looking into — and just how dangerous it may or may not be for President Trump and for Sessions himself.
What Sessions was probably questioned about
Again, the fact that the interview happened isn’t surprising. Many top current and former White House and Trump campaign aides — Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Jared Kushner, Hope Hicks, Stephen Miller, and Don McGahn, among others — have already been interviewed by Mueller’s team.
Furthermore, Sessions was always an obvious target for questioning.
First, he could have knowledge of the collusion aspect of the investigation. Sessions was a top Trump campaign foreign policy adviser and was nominally in charge of the infamous Trump foreign policy team that included George Papadopoulos, who has already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians. Sessions himself met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign (and initially failed to disclose it).
Second, Sessions could have knowledge relevant to the obstruction of justice aspect of the probe too. It’s been widely reported that Trump has opined about the Russia investigation to him in private repeatedly. The Times reported that Trump urged Sessions not to recuse himself from oversight of the probe. Sessions also famously played a role in Comey’s firing itself — both discussing it with Trump beforehand and writing a letter recommending Comey’s removal.
Despite his recusal, Sessions still oversees the FBI — and has lately been pressuring the bureau
Naturally, Sessions’s answers will be important to Mueller’s investigation, as is the case for any central figure his team interviews.
Sessions, however, remains in charge of the Justice Department, and technically the FBI as well. Sessions has recused himself from “any matters arising from the campaigns for President of the United States.”
But he’s made clear that he does not believe his recusal covers matters such as, say FBI personnel choices. And of late, some reports suggest Sessions has been trying to make changes to the bureau along the exact lines that Trump and his defenders keep demanding.
For one, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported Monday that back in December, Sessions was “pressuring” the new FBI director, Christopher Wray, to fire his deputy, Andrew McCabe — something Trump and Hill conservatives have been demanding for months. (McCabe’s wife was a Democratic candidate for Virginia’s state Senate in 2015, and then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton ally, helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for her campaign. She ended up losing the race before McCabe was given supervisory authority over the Clinton email investigation.)
In the case of McCabe, Wray is said to have resisted Sessions’s pressure. But the New York Times reported last month that McCabe is expected to voluntarily retire in March, and if that happens, Trump and Sessions will have gotten what they wanted anyway. Wray also did reassign the FBI’s top lawyer James Baker — and according to Swan, Sessions pressured him to do that as well.
All this was unfolding with Trump and his allies’ intense criticism of the Russia probe as the obvious backdrop. Although these developments happened before Sessions was interviewed last week, he apparently saw no problem intervening with in politically charged, Russia-probe-related FBI personnel decisions despite having every reason to believe he’d be a key figure in Mueller’s probe.
Is Mueller looking into potential wrongdoing by Sessions? The interview alone isn’t enough to make that clear — Mueller’s team has interviewed many White House aides for a variety of reasons. But after being interviewed for hours, Sessions probably has a better idea of the answer to that question. It’s worth asking whether that will play a role in any interventions with the FBI going forward.