U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Justice Department after President Donald Trump criticized the agency's performance under Sessions' leadership.
“I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in,” Sessions said in a statement, which is why we had unprecedented success at effectuating the President's agenda––one that protects the safety and security and rights of the American people, reduces violent crime, enforces our immigration laws, promotes economic growth, and advances religious liberty."
While I am Attorney General, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action. However, no nation has a more talented, more dedicated group of law enforcement investigators and prosecutors than the United States.
Sessions issued his statement shortly after Trump criticized Sessions as ineffective during an interview with Fox News which aired yesterday.
"I put in an attorney general who never took control of the Justice Department. Jeff Sessions, never took control of the Justice Department. It's sort of an incredible thing," Trump said yesterday.
Chief among Trump's disappointments with his attorney general is Sessions' decision last year to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
"It's a very, very sad day. Jeff Sessions recused himself, which he shouldn't have done or he should have told me," he said. "Even my enemies say that Jeff Sessions should have told you that he was going to recuse himself and then you wouldn't have put him in."
This is far from the first time Trump has criticized Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe. Earlier this month, Trump called out Sessions for failing to curb the Russia investigation and for retaining Bruce Ohr, the former associate deputy attorney general, who was named in the controversial Nunes memo which alleged the FBI had abused its surveillance powers.
"Our A.G. is scared stiff and Missing in Action," Trump wrote at the time.
The saga of just why Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation––and why the president has considered his action a profound example of his disloyalty––is a messy one.
Last year, a Wall Street Journal report revealed that Sessions used funds from his Senate reelection campaign to cover travel expenses for the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he met with Sergei Kislyak, who was then the Russian ambassador to the United States.
The news that Sessions met with Kislyak directly contradicted a White House statement that Sessions was not acting on behalf of the campaign at the time.
“He was literally conducting himself as a United States senator,” then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last spring. Spicer further claimed Sessions didn’t discuss matters related to Trump’s campaign.
But according to the WSJ, Sessions used campaign funds for his travel, rather than official Senate Armed Services Committee funds: Sessions’ campaign account made two payments of $1,395 to the Sheraton Cleveland Airport on July 16. The campaign also paid $223 to the Westin Hotel in Cleveland. Both were deemed “lodging expenses.” None of the payments reimbursing Sessions for his travel expenses reappear in President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign account.
And it got worse from there.
Sessions defended his meeting with Kilslyak as a standard one for a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But Larry Nobel, the general counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said Sessions would have had a harder time justifying the use of Senate Armed Services Committee funds while a senior advisor to the Trump campaign. “If he was truly there solely as a member of the Armed Services Committee, then he could’ve used his legislative account,” he said.
Shortly afterward, Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores told reporters she couldn’t comment on his convention expenses, adding that aides with Sessions at the Cleveland event don’t recall him discussing the election with the Russian envoy, though they could not be certain due to the “noise level” at the event.
Earlier that week, Flores insisted Sessions did not mislead the Senate when he failed to disclose his meetings with Kislyak during his January 10 confirmation hearing.
“There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer,” she said, emphasizing that Sessions in 2016 had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, including the British, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Canadian, Australian and German ambassadors, in addition to Kislyak.
But The Washington Post contacted all 26 members of the 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee to see whether any senators besides Sessions also met with Kislyak last year. Of the 20 who responded, every lawmaker, including Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), said they did not meet with the Russian ambassador.
These findings came after the White House indicated the administration would stand squarely behind Sessions. President Trump stated he had “full” confidence in Sessions and saw no need for him to recuse himself from the Russia probe. The White House had said, however, that it was unaware of the contacts that Sessions had with the Russian ambassador while serving as a top advisor to the Trump campaign.
Sessions then chose to recuse himself, amid mounting bipartisan pressure from Congress over his contacts with Kislyak.
It was the second time in as many months that Kislyak found himself at the center of a White House scandal: Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, resigned from the White House in disgrace after he provided false information about his communications with the Russian government, particularly after the news of his conversations with Kislyak became public.