President Donald Trump gave a bombshell interview with the New York Times on Wednesday in which he said that he would not have appointed Jeff Sessions to be attorney general had he known Sessions would recuse himself from the Russian investigation. It was a highly disturbing interview since Sessions recused on the advice of ethics experts at the Justice Department and the overwhelming view of the bar.
“Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else . . . Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president . . . How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair—and that’s a mild word—to the president.”
Sessions stated in a press conference today that will continue to serve “as long as that is appropriate.”
Trump’s statement further undermines the position of his legal team. First, it essentially says that Sessions would have been rejected for stating an intention to follow ethical rules on recusal. Second, the statement that the decision was “unfair” suggests that, had Sessions remained in charge, the Russian investigation would have somehow been terminated or curtailed.
I stated publicly weeks before the recusal that Sessions should recuse himself. If anything, I thought the decision was belated though my concerns were removed by Sessions’ statement that he actually removed himself from the Russian investigation as soon as he was sworn into office. He had an obligation to avoid both a conflict or an appearance of a conflict and experts widely agreed that recusal was necessary. Thus, the President is suggesting that Sessions should have rejected the view of his own department and the view of most experts in refusing to recuse himself.
The interview could well come back to haunt the President if this matter grows more serious toward any indictment or impeachment. It is material to the firing of Comey since prosecutors could argue that, even when under investigation, Trump is still suggesting that he wanted high-ranking officials to scuttle the Russian investigation. Statements of this kind are simply baffling. They cause real harm to the position of the President and achieve nothing. Ironically, I have long argued that the White House should have at the outset invited an independent investigation. There is still no compelling evidence of a crime by Trump and such an investigation could clear his name — as opposed to some scuttling or curtailment of the investigation by one of his appointees.
I can understand the President’s frustration but these ad hoc comments are doing real harm to his administration. It continues a long record of mishaps and misfires by the White House, including the timing and manner of the Comey termination.