In March 2017, not quite two months into Donald Trump’s presidency, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation into the Russia scandal. This was hardly a radical decision: Sessions was a prominent member of the Republican’s campaign team; he’d made highly dubious claims under oath about his contacts with Russian officials; and Justice Department officials urged the attorney general to stand aside.
The president, however, didn’t quite see it that way. In fact, Sessions’ recusal quickly became the basis for multiple Trump tantrums, including an incident in May in which the president called his attorney general an “idiot” and accused him of “disloyalty.”
As it turns out, that’s not all he did. The New York Times had an interesting scoop overnight.
Sessions refused to reverse course, which no doubt infuriated the president further, but this isn’t just a story about palace intrigue and who enraged whom behind the scenes. What’s more significant about this report is that Trump’s efforts to get the attorney general to un-recuse himself raise important legal questions.
By the time Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrived at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort for dinner one Saturday evening in March 2017, he had been receiving the presidential silent treatment for two days. Mr. Sessions had flown to Florida because Mr. Trump was refusing to take his calls about a pressing decision on his travel ban.
When they met, Mr. Trump was ready to talk – but not about the travel ban. His grievance was with Mr. Sessions: The president objected to his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Mr. Trump, who had told aides that he needed a loyalist overseeing the inquiry, berated Mr. Sessions and told him he should reverse his decision, an unusual and potentially inappropriate request.
Rudy Giuliani told the Times that the presidential pressure was perfectly permissible. Special Counsel Robert Mueller may see things differently: the NYT’s article added that Mueller is examining the confrontation between Trump and Sessions.
The special counsel’s interest demonstrates Mr. Sessions’s overlooked role as a key witness in the investigation into whether Mr. Trump tried to obstruct the inquiry itself. It also suggests that the obstruction investigation is broader than it is widely understood to be – encompassing not only the president’s interactions with and firing of the former F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, but also his relationship with Mr. Sessions.
Investigators have pressed current and former White House officials about Mr. Trump’s treatment of Mr. Sessions and whether they believe the president was trying to impede the Russia investigation by pressuring him. The attorney general was also interviewed at length by Mr. Mueller’s investigators in January. And of the four dozen or so questions Mr. Mueller wants to ask Mr. Trump, eight relate to Mr. Sessions. Among them: What efforts did you make to try to get him to reverse his recusal?
The president has never been able to explain his fits over Sessions’ recusal with a compelling defense. That’s because there’s really only one explanation: Trump expected a partisan ally to run interference for him, guiding the investigation in ways that worked to the White House’s favor. Or put another way, the president was furious with his attorney general because he assumed Sessions would shield him from potential consequences.
When the Alabama Republican removed himself from the process, it meant there was no one inside the Justice Department in a position to tilt the playing field in the president’s favor – a dynamic that infuriated Trump.
The question now is whether that fury led Trump to take steps that obstructed justice. The fact that Mueller considers this an important line of inquiry is not good news for the president.