It didn’t get the most attention, but one of the newsiest pieces of information to come out of Thursday’s hearing with fired FBI Director James Comey was not about President Donald Trump, but about Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Comey gave an account of Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation that contradicts Sessions’ own public statement about why he recused himself.
Comey and his FBI colleagues did not tell Sessions about Trump’s improper February request for Comey to “let go” the criminal investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Comey said they kept Sessions out of the loop because they expected he would soon recuse himself from the Russia investigation. And, Comey said, he could not discuss the reasons for that expected recusal in an unclassified session of testimony.
Comey said (emphasis mine):
“Our judgment as I recall was that he was very close to, and inevitably going to, recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting, that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. And so we were – we were confronted and, in fact, I think we had already heard that the career people were recommending that he would recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer. That turned out to be the case.”
Sessions did in fact recuse himself about two weeks later, on March 2. But at a press conference that day, Sessions said the reason for his recusal was simply that he had been involved in the 2016 presidential campaign and therefore should not oversee investigations related to that campaign.
Sessions said (emphasis mine):
“I have met with senior officials shortly after arriving here. We evaluated the rules of ethics and recusal. I have considered the issues at stake. In fact, on Monday of this week, we set a meeting with an eye to a final decision on this question. And on Monday, we set that meeting today. So this was a day that we planned to have a final discussion about handling this. I asked for their candid and honest opinion about what I should do about investigations, certain investigations. And my staff recommended recusal. They said that since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation. I have studied the rules and considered their comments and evaluation. I believe those recommendations are right and just.”
Obviously, Sessions’ role as a surrogate and adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign is not classified and is not a matter that Comey would have had to reserve for a closed session. So, Comey’s account of Sessions’ recusal directly contradicts Sessions’ own public account of why he recused himself.
So, what were the facts about the sitting Attorney General that forced his recusal that can’t be discussed in an unclassified setting?