Trump, Sessions relationship takes new turn with special counsel decision

President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have a new complication in their historically contentious relationship: The decision by Sessions not to appoint a second special counsel to investigate conservative allegations of abuse at the Justice Department.

Sessions on Thursday notified key lawmakers on Capitol Hill that he has tapped Utah’s top prosecutor, John Huber, to coordinate with the department’s inspector general — but he stopped short of ceding to demands for a new special counsel, at least for now.

The announcement was a disappointment to some Trump allies in Congress who have clamored for the appointment.

“I disagree with the attorney general,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a lawmaker who frequently talks to Trump. “The Justice Department is not complying with the subpoena and oversight responsibility we have in Congress, so for the attorney general to say there’s not enough there is extremely disappointing.”

The White House itself did not comment on the Sessions decision, however, nor did Trump.

And key lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have formally requested a second special counsel — such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.)  — instead chose to focus on the appointment of Huber, calling the move “encouraging.”

Still, the news will do little to dim speculation that Trump may fire the attorney general, whom he has publicly mocked, criticized and pressured over his handling of the department. Trump was enraged by Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation last spring, an act he saw as a betrayal, and Washington has been on watch for the attorney general’s dismissal for a year.

Trump has berated Sessions for giving responsibility for investigation into the myriad allegations to the Justice Department inspector general, calling it “disgraceful” in a recent tweet.

“No matter what happens, Trump is furious at Sessions” over his recusal, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist and political analyst. “And Trump will not be satisfied until a second special counsel is convened.”

The decision also comes as Sessions is featured on the cover of Time magazine — an honor that sat uneasily with the president when previously bestowed on staff members.

Sessions’s lengthy explanation to lawmakers leaves open the option that Huber could still recommend the appointment of a special counsel — and it gives conservative lawmakers some of what they say they want.

The decision to tap Huber to coordinate with the department’s inspector general appeases Republican demands for an investigator who has the authority to prosecute people.

“While we continue to believe the appointment of a second Special Counsel is necessary, this is a step in the right direction,” Gowdy and Goodlatte said in a joint statement on Thursday.

Sessions also emphasized the authority of the Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowitz, to “collect evidence through subpoena, and develop cases for presentation to the Attorney General … for prosecution” — other complaints Republicans had raised about relying solely on Horowitz.

“I think it’s actually another in a series of examples of Sessions walking a pretty fine tightrope and at least, thus far, navigating it successfully,” said Stephen Vladeck, a national security law professor at the University of Texas.

In the Time interview, Sessions sent the signal that he is working for Trump.

“I want to do what the president wants me to do,” he told Time. “But I do feel like we’re advancing the agenda that he believes in. And what’s good for me is it’s what I believe in too.”

The former Alabama senator, an early supporter of the president during his campaign, has been successful in carrying out Trump initiatives beyond the handling of the Russia investigation.

“I think the administration is, overall, happy with Jeff Sessions, particularly with illegal immigration, sanctuary cities,” said O’Connell.

And Sessions did earn praise from Trump earlier this month for dismissing FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe — a day before he would have been eligible for his pension.

Trump has accused McCabe, a longtime GOP target, of bias. According to the Justice Department, Sessions fired the former career official over allegations of misconduct stemming from an ongoing internal inspector general investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email probe. McCabe has claimed that his dismissal was unjustified and politically motivated.

Sessions has repeatedly indicated misgivings about appointing a second special counsel despite demands from Republicans in Congress, a position that could further fracture his ties to Trump.

Goodlatte, Gowdy and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have all called for a second special counsel to investigate a variety of different conservative allegations related to the Obama-era Justice Department.

Republicans have urged Justice to investigate putative wrong doing by the Clinton Foundation, as well as the 2010 sale of a Toronto-based uranium company with U.S. holdings to a Russian state-owned firm — a sale Trump has also repeatedly highlighted.

They have also demanded a probe into how the Obama Justice Department handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of State. Horowitz is expected to issue a report in his investigation into the matter as soon as April.

More recently, Republicans have pushed for a probe into allegations of surveillance abuse raised by a controversial memo authored by staff for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

The inspector general announced this week that he is launching an investigation into those allegations.

Sessions has deflected, deferred and in some cases outright denied demands for the second counsel for months.

In a marathon appearance before Goodlatte’s committee in November, he insisted that it would take “a factual basis that meets the standard of a special counsel” for the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor.

“We will use the proper standards and that’s the only thing I can tell you, Mr. Jordan,” Sessions said in a testy exchange with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “You can have your idea, but sometimes we have to study what the facts are and to evaluate whether it meets the standards it requires.”

In his letter on Thursday, Sessions set a high bar for the appointment, suggesting it would be necessary to show a clear conflict of interest for the Justice Department.

Steven Cash, a lawyer at Day Pitney, said Sessions was simply following regular protocol by declining to appoint a special counsel, given the narrow circumstances under which such an appointment is warranted.

“It seems like this is sort of regular order of business,” he said.

He also said Sessions was right not to completely rule out the possibility of appointing one should a reason arise.

“That’s not surprising either, because you never know what you’re going to find,” Cash said. “And you should never rule it out.”

Jonathan Easley contributed.

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