Jeff Sessions, at the time a Republican Senator from Alabama, was one of the Trump campaign’s most frequently deployed surrogates in 2016. Sessions was the first GOP Senator to endorse Trump during the primaries – the Alabama Senator’s long-standing opposition to immigration reform, often expressed using racially charged arguments and talking points, meshed well with Trump’s virulent anti-immigrant campaign trail rhetoric.
After Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 election, he rewarded Sessions for his early endorsement by naming him Attorney General.
However, the relationship between the two men quickly corroded. The Attorney General’s crime, in the President’s mind? On March 2, 2017, Sessions recused himself from any role in any investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Sessions saw this as an easy call, considering his extensive role in the Trump campaign and his own contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.
Trump saw it differently, considering the recusal an act of staggering disloyalty. He made clear that he believed the Attorney General should act as the President’s legal shield, protecting him from unfriendly investigations.
In this newest edition of our ongoing series examining obstruction of justice in the Mueller Report, American Legal News is looking at section H of the report’s second volume. Section H documents the President’s attempts to persuade Sessions to “un-recuse” himself, take control of the Russia investigation and protect the President from federal investigators.
An Angry President
Almost immediately after Sessions announced his recusal, the President began imploring him to reverse the decision. Just a few days after Sessions made his announcement, the President pulled him aside at the Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida and asked him to change his mind, contrasting Sessions with Robert Kennedy and Eric Holder, past Attorneys General who Trump believed conspired to protect the Presidents who appointed them (Trump considered that a good practice, to be clear).
Sessions did not reverse his recusal. This didn’t stop the President, however. According to Sessions, Trump called him some time after the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel in May of 2017 and again asked him to un-recuse himself. Sessions didn’t respond and didn’t reverse his recusal.
Amazingly, the President continued to press the point throughout the year. The President met privately with Sessions in October of 2017 and asked him to investigate Hillary Clinton and her e-mails. Sessions didn’t make any promises and launched no such investigation. And in December, the President again met with Sessions in the Oval Office and, per the Mueller Report, “suggested” Sessions could un-recuse himself.
After Sessions rebuffed the request, the President began an incessant public campaign of humiliation, one transparently designed to goad Sessions into resigning. Trump repeatedly tweeted about his displeasure with Sessions and gave interviews where he criticized Sessions, comparing him unfavorably to past Attorneys General.
The President would end up firing Sessions the day after the midterm elections.
The Report’s Analysis
The Mueller Report’s obstruction analysis relating to the President’s attempts to induce Sessions to seize control of the Russia investigation nods toward a determination that the President’s actions were obstructive, but does not say anything truly conclusive.
The first element of an obstruction of justice determination is the presence of an obstructive act. The report’s authors argue that the important question is whether the act would “naturally impede the Russia investigation.” The report doesn’t reach any conclusions on that question – instead, it is content to observe that the “duration of the President’s efforts” and “the fact that the President repeatedly criticized Sessions in public and in private” is “relevant to assessing whether the President’s efforts…could qualify as an obstructive act.
The second element of an obstruction of justice analysis, a nexus between the act and an official proceeding, is treated similarly in the report, with no conclusion reached.
The report’s analysis of the third element of an obstruction of justice determination, corrupt intent, is somewhat more suggestive. The report’s authors begin by saying, “There is evidence that at least one purpose of the President ‘s conduct toward Sessions was to have Sessions assume control over the Russia investigation and supervise it in a way that would restrict its scope.”
Aides quoted in the report linked the President’s actions toward Sessions with a desire to control the Russia investigation and investigate Hillary Clinton, his former political rival. As the report’s authors write, “A reasonable inference from those statements and the President ‘s actions is that the President believed that an unrecused Attorney General would play a protective role and could shield the President from the ongoing Russia investigation.”
Ultimately, however, the Mueller Report’s obstruction of justice analysis on this issue can be summarized as suggestive, but not conclusive.