President Trump is unhappy with Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation — which led to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Trump has also criticized the Justice Department's handling of his travel ban, and he clearly has been unhappy with Sessions's perceived lack of zeal in investigating Democrats.
And now Sessions has done something Trump surely won't like: shooting down a conservative conspiracy theory at which the president himself has hinted.
During an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, an animated Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) pressed Sessions on what Jordan felt was the need to appoint a second special counsel to look into Democrats' role in that infamous anti-Trump dossier. And Sessions rebuffed him.
“We know one fact: We know the Clinton campaign and the [Democratic] National Committee paid for — through the law firm — paid for the dossier. We know that happened,” Jordan began. “And it sure looks like the FBI was paying the author of that document. And it sure looks like a major political party was working with the federal government to then turn an opposition research document that quoted some National Enquirer story into an intelligence document, take that to the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court so that they could then get a warrant to spy on Americans associated with President Trump's campaign. That's what it looks like.”
Sessions's retort: “I would say 'looks like' is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel.”
The exchange came the morning after The Washington Post reported that a new Justice Department letter showed that Sessions was entertaining the idea of that new special counsel. That letter came in response to members like Jordan calling for one, and it wasn't clear how close Sessions was to actually appointing one. His comments Tuesday suggest that he's not terribly close.
But the call isn't coming just from House Republicans; it has also come from Trump. Two weeks ago, Trump called on his own Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton. Trump added that the “saddest thing” was that he couldn't order the DOJ to do such things.
“Hopefully, they are doing something and, at some point, maybe we are going to all have it out,” he said.
Trump has also tweeted conspiratorial ideas about the dossier and alleged that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower before his victory last November.
In recent weeks, Trump has suggested that the FBI paid for the dossier and worked with Democrats on it. (The FBI did reach a deal with the dossier's author, Christopher Steele, The Post has reported, but scrapped it before making payments when Steele's name became public.)
Trump has also urged investigations of Clinton for both the dossier and the alleged rigging of the 2016 Democratic primary contests.
Trump hasn't connected the dots between the dossier and the alleged monitoring of his campaign to the extent that Jordan did in his question, but it's pretty evident that Trump shares many of the concerns and the general idea behind Jordan's theory. And in response, Sessions basically suggested that the whole idea was conspiratorial and highly speculative.
In some ways, this is what Sessions signed up for. He has got to balance the conspiracy-theory-loving and loyalty-demanding impulses of his boss with what the law calls for and allows. He has also got to maintain the independence of the Justice Department when it looks as if Trump is leaning on him to take specific actions.
And as the scene Tuesday morning showed, that can lead to some decisions and comments that the boss probably won't be thrilled with.