In the past 48 hours we’ve learned two important things about Attorney General Jeff Sessions that we didn’t know before.
First, we learned from Axios that inappropriate political pressure Sessions has brought to bear on the FBI, at President Trump’s behest, recently drove Trump’s newly installed FBI Director, Christopher Wray, to consider resigning.
Second, we learned from the New York Times that Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller has interviewed Sessions as a witness in his investigation of the Trump campaign’s involvement in the Russian government’s subversion of the 2016 election.
Neither of these developments is surprising, or even unusual in the Trump era. Trump surrounds himself with enablers, and Sessions has been one of his most loyal yes-men since his days as a campaign surrogate. In part as a result of his obsequiousness and subservient conduct, it has been widely assumed that Sessions would sit down with Mueller’s team at some point, to address both the Trump campaign’s corrupt relationship with Russia, and Trump’s efforts to obstruct the DOJ investigation.
But together, the revelations recall an ambivalence Democrats have felt about Sessions since early in the special counsel investigation. They also point to a workable political resolution. On a substantive level, Sessions’ tenure as attorney general has been extraordinarily damaging. At the very least, it has set back civil rights enforcement and criminal justice reforms by years. And in supplicating to Trump, Sessions has compromised both himself and the rule of law alike. At the same time, though, he has recused himself from Mueller’s investigation, and many liberals worry that if Sessions were to resign or be fired, his successor—who would not be so recused—would accede to Trump’s demands to starve or quash it.
The ideal remedy for all of this would be for Congress to impeach Trump and remove him from office. Unfortunately, few in Congress, including most Democrats, have been willing to broach the topic of impeachment—at least with respect to Trump. Impeaching a president is a heavy lift, and many Senate Democrats who represent states Trump carried in the election fear that the mere mention of the word will cost them their jobs. But any Senate-confirmed official, including the attorney general, can also be impeached, and that would be the best way for Congress (or at least Democrats in Congress) to seek accountability for Sessions’ failures as a public servant.
In testifying before Congress, Sessions has claimed not to recall a tremendous amount of information about his conduct as a Trump surrogate. It is unclear how thoroughly he refreshed his memory before he sat down for his interview with Mueller, but even if Sessions was fully forthcoming with federal prosecutors, it won’t change the fact that he has provided false testimony to Congress multiple times.
Sessions is also actively and passively helping Trump corrupt federal law enforcement. This has been true for essentially his entire tenure. After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last year, Comey testified before the Senate that Sessions took no proactive steps to protect the Justice Department from Trump’s efforts to politicize law enforcement. When Trump cleared out an Oval Office meeting last year in order directly pressure Comey to end his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Sessions left the FBI Director alone with the president.
“Shortly afterwards,” Comey wrote, “I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened—him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind—was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply.”
Trump subsequently contacted Comey at least twice before firing him. The president has changed tactics slightly in his efforts to corrupt Comey’s successor, Christopher Wray, apparently with Sessions’ complete indulgence. Trump regularly trashes the senior leadership of the Justice Department on Twitter, and, per Axios, dispatches Sessions to privately push Wray to replace the leadership team. It is this pattern of pressure that reportedly drove Wray to hint at his own resignation.
Sessions’ abdication of his duty to protect the FBI from political interference has left Wray exposed to an ongoing congressional Republican effort to penetrate the Mueller investigation. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Wray promised to protect the investigation, including by informing Congress of efforts to tamper with it. He may not have anticipated that Congress would be the body doing the tampering. Most recently, House Intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes, with the support of House Speaker Paul Ryan, forced the DOJ, under threat of contempt-of-Congress proceedings, to provide members access to classified and law-enforcement sensitive documents pertaining to the Russia investigation. Nunes has since selectively culled that information into a memo that he and other Republican propagandists are threatening to release to undermine the investigation itself.
Wray wouldn’t get very far reporting Congress to Congress for interfering with the Mueller investigation. But neither can he, under these circumstances, count on the attorney general to protect the institutional prerogatives of the Justice Department, or use his position of influence to shield the FBI from this kind of congressional meddling.
For all these reasons, Sessions deserves to be impeached. But simply calling for his impeachment also gives Democrats a political outlet for their myriad frustrations with the Trump administration, without compromising the Mueller investigation or making Democratic incumbents from Trump states uncomfortable. Ideally, those considerations wouldn’t matter, but Democratic leaders have made clear that they will not agitate for Trump’s impeachment, merits be damned.
Republicans responded to right-wing pressure to impeach Obama similarly, by getting behind efforts to impeach Attorney General Eric Holder and IRS Commissioner John Koskinen instead. Those efforts ultimately failed, but they served useful purposes as conduits for political anger. Calling for Sessions’ impeachment could serve a similar safety valve-like purpose for Democrats, as pressure from Democratic base voters to impeach the president grows.
And the best part is that it would come at no cost. A Democratic campaign to impeach Sessions would get Republican wagons circling, and make Trump and the GOP Congress less likely to abandon Sessions. That would, somewhat counterintuitively, protect the Russia investigation in the near-term. On the flipside, a scenario in which Democrats successfully remove Sessions from office is one in which they either control the Congress, or have persuaded many Republicans that the rule of law is under threat. Under those circumstances, they could also prevent Trump from replacing Sessions with another apparatchik who might fire Robert Mueller.
Sessions is unlikely to actually face an impeachment inquiry anytime soon, but he should be put on notice that one is coming if the balance of power in Washington shifts. He deserves no less, and nobody in Democratic politics should deny him the honor.