President Donald Trump reacted to Jeff Sessions’s so-so primary showing in his quest to regain his old Alabama US Senate seat by taking yet another shot at his former attorney general. But in the process of doing so, Trump confirmed one of the Mueller report’s key findings about his efforts to obstruct justice.
On Wednesday morning, Trump quote-tweeted a post from Politico about Sessions’s second-place finish in Tuesday’s Republican primary — one that will result in a runoff next month between Sessions and first-place finisher Tommy Tuberville — and wrote, “This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn’t have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt. Recuses himself on FIRST DAY in office, and the Mueller Scam begins!”
This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn’t have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt. Recuses himself on FIRST DAY in office, and the Mueller Scam begins! https://t.co/2jGnRgOS6h— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2020
Trump’s tweet is factually incorrect. Sessions actually served as attorney general for about three weeks before he recused himself from the Russia probe on March 2, 2017, on the heels of revelations that he had misled senators during his confirmation hearing about the extent of his communications with Russians in 2016. But more significant than that fib is the broader point Trump communicated: that Sessions should have quickly shut down the investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia instead of recusing himself.
Here’s the thing: The president isn’t supposed to direct the attorney general to end specific investigations, especially ones directly involving his campaign. In fact, the perception that Trump had interfered in the Russia investigation (by firing then-FBI Director James Comey two months after Sessions’s recusal) led to special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment in the first place.
As part of his investigation, Mueller investigated 10 instances where Trump potentially committed obstruction of justice. A number of them involved Trump’s repeated efforts to cajole Sessions into either limiting the investigation or unrecusing himself and ending it.
As Marshall Cohen of CNN noted, the evidence Mueller laid out indicated that Trump’s conduct met all the criteria for an obstruction of justice charge. But Mueller ultimately determined that because of the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel’s 2000 opinion that the department can’t indict a sitting president, charging Trump with crimes while he’s still in office wasn’t an option for him.
The good people at @lawfareblog have a very handy collection of all the Mueller analysis on obstruction of justice. Here's what Mueller said about Trump's behavior toward Sessions, and how it met the threshold for all three elements needed for an obstruction charge. pic.twitter.com/5oP6YEH4AS— Marshall Cohen (@MarshallCohen) March 4, 2020
Wednesday’s tweet is not the first time Trump has basically publicly admitted that he asked Sessions to end the Russia investigation. He posted a tweet that was even more direct about that demand in August 2018, one day after the trial of his former campaign manager Paul Manafort began on a host of charges related to financial crimes and money laundering that stemmed from the Mueller investigation. This was also back when Sessions was still serving as AG (Sessions resigned under pressure three months later and was replaced by William Barr).
..This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2018
In his report that was released almost a year ago now, Mueller concluded “that Sessions was being instructed” by Trump “to tell the Special Counsel to end the existing investigation into the President and his campaign.”
From the Mueller report (emphasis mine):
The President sought to have Sessions announce that the President “shouldn’t have a Special Prosecutor/Counsel” and that Sessions was going to “meet with the Special Prosecutor to explain this is very unfair and let the Special Prosecutor move forward with investigating election meddling for future election so that nothing can happen in future elections.” The President wanted Sessions to disregard his recusal from the investigation, which had followed from a formal DOJ ethics review, and have Sessions declare that he knew “for a fact” that “there were no Russians involved with the campaign” because he “was there.” The President further directed that Sessions should explain that the President should not be subject to an investigation “because he hadn’t done anything wrong.” Taken together, the President’s directives indicate that Sessions was being instructed to tell the Special Counsel to end the existing investigation into the President and his campaign, with the Special Counsel being permitted to “move forward with investigating election meddling for future elections.”
Trump’s tweet on Wednesday basically confirmed the key passage in bold — that he instructed Sessions to end the investigation and became angry with him when he refused to do it.
Why does any of this matter? Aside from serving as an example of how reckless Trump’s tweeting continues to be — and as an illustration that his long-simmering, one-sided feud with Sessions isn’t over — it’s also worth remembering that while Mueller concluded Trump couldn’t be charged with obstruction of justice while he’s in office, he could still face charges once his presidency ends.
Read in that context, Trump’s tweet reads uncomfortably like an admission.