Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Need For An Independent Investigation Into Connections Between Russia And The White House

With each day, we learn more about the troubling connections between the Russian government and President Trump’s campaign and administration.  We already knew that Russian President Putin ordered a multi-faceted campaign to undermine public faith in our election and to help President Trump win in November.  That in itself is an attack on our democracy that should alarm all Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike.  Reports indicate that Trump officials were in repeated contact with senior Russian intelligence officials during this time.  This comes on the heels of the President’s National Security Advisor resigning after providing misleading details on conversations he had with the Russian ambassador concerning U.S. sanctions.  Yet there is still much we do not know, including the extent of the contacts, who directed them, whether there was collusion, and what the President knew and when.

The American people deserve to know the facts. They deserve a full and fair investigation, free from any political influence.  The White House has already demonstrated it will not respect the independence of this investigation.  The fact that the White House Chief of Staff attempted to use the FBI, in violation of Justice Department policies, to suppress news reports about Russian contacts reveals why we cannot trust the White House to play by the rules.

For these reasons I have called on Attorney General Sessions to step aside, and to appoint a Special Counsel to conduct an independent investigation.  This should not be viewed as an attack on Attorney General Sessions.  But even a cursory review of the Justice Department’s recusal standards reveals that he does not – indeed cannot – have the independence necessary to assure wary Americans that this investigation will be driven by the facts, not by relationships.

Justice Department regulations mandate that “no employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with . . . [a]ny person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation.”  A “political relationship” is defined as “a close identification with an elected official . . . arising from service as a principal adviser thereto. . . .”  Prior to his confirmation, I asked the Attorney General whether he met this standard.  This is not a close call.  The rule perfectly describes the relationship between Attorney General Sessions and President Trump.  But he brushed the question off, claiming that he was “merely . . . a supporter of the president’s during the campaign.”

That is an obvious mischaracterization of the role he played as a top advisor to the Trump campaign.  Attorney General – then Senator – Sessions was widely recognized as a central figure in the campaign, who had his fingerprints all over the president’s policies.  Steve Bannon even called him the president’s “clearinghouse for policy and philosophy.”  To suggest that the Attorney General was just “a supporter,” and that he did not have a “political relationship” with the Trump campaign, is patently false.

If the Attorney General refuses to follow the Department’s recusal standard, I would hope he would follow his own.  Last year, days before the election, then-Senator Sessions and other Trump campaign surrogates wrote an op-ed criticizing then-Attorney General Lynch for not recusing herself from matters involving Secretary Clinton.  The basis of his complaint was a “39-minute conversation” Lynch had with President Bill Clinton in Phoenix.  I find this impossible to reconcile.  How does a half hour conversation require recusal when it comes to the Clintons, but a year’s worth of vigorously campaigning with and advising does not when it comes to the Trump campaign?

During the 20 years I have known him, Jeff Sessions has often spoken of his commitment to the rule of law.  That commitment is now being tested.  Whether we apply the Justice Department’s recusal standard, or the Jeff Sessions recusal standard, it is clear that Attorney General Sessions must step aside.  Nothing less than the integrity of our democracy is at stake with this investigation.  It is essential that it be led by someone who — in both appearance and reality — is impartial and removed from politics.  That does not describe someone who was in the trenches of a political campaign with the subjects of the investigation, while they were allegedly engaged in the activity under investigation.  For the good of the country, the Attorney General must appoint a Special Counsel, and the public must have answers.

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