Story highlights

The independence of the Justice Department is no theoretical question

Trump, judging from his Twitter account and other statements, seems bent on using it to punish foes

Washington CNN  — 

One day, President Trump calls the US justice system a “laughingstock.” The next day he wants it used to investigate his 2016 election opponent Hillary Clinton. He appears to hold unparalleled disregard for the independence of the US justice system.

So, on Tuesday when Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified for five hours before the House judiciary committee, some members asked whether Sessions – the nation’s top law enforcement officer – could be independent and uphold the rule of law.

Sessions sounded less like a man trying to protect the rule of law than one trying to protect his job.

The independence of the Justice Department is no theoretical question. Trump, judging from his Twitter account and other statements, seems bent on using it to punish foes. His public pressure on the department and the man who runs it is unprecedented.

After previously calling Sessions “beleaguered” and “weak,” Trump declared November 3 on Twitter: “Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with crooked Hillary & the Dems.”

On Monday, DOJ said it was considering appointing a special counsel to look into allegations of wrongdoing regarding the 2010 sale of a uranium company to Russia, which the State Department under Secretary Hillary Clinton approved.

“In a functioning democracy,” Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, asked Sessions, “is it common for the leader of the country to order the criminal justice system to retaliate against his political opponents?”

Sessions declined to give a “yes or no” answer as Conyers requested, but said, “the Department of Justice can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents, and that would be wrong.”

Conyers continued, and Sessions demurred.

“Should the President of the United States make public comments that might influence a pending criminal investigation?” Conyers asked.

“Well, I don’t know exactly what the facts of what you’re raising, and what amounts to the concern you have,” the attorney general said.

Sessions said he would not be “improperly influenced,” yet immediately added, “The President speaks his mind. He’s bold and direct about what he says. The people elected him. But we do our duty every day based on the laws and fact.”

As he sat alone before the 41-member committee, television cameras rolling, Sessions tiptoed around questions of basic democratic norms that at any other time would have been easily answered.

He was buffeted by both sides: Republicans who want a fresh investigation into Clinton; Democrats who worry about such a move and, more importantly, who believe Sessions has not been candid about contacts with the Russians while he helped run the Trump campaign. Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller and several congressional committees are investigating Trump campaign links to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Sessions rejected claims that he had earlier lied about his Russian-related activities. He said he had merely forgotten relevant conversations. He said previously and Tuesday that he was testifying “to the best of (his) recollection.”

The Russia-related lines of Q-and-A drew most of the headlines.

Yet Trump’s extraordinary disdain for the nation’s judges and prosecutors made Sessions’ less than robust defense of DOJ independence equally salient.

“You said when you started your testimony today that there is nothing more important than advancing the rule of law,” Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Florida, said. “And when you answer the way you have, it suggests that the rule of law is crumbling at our feet.”

Sessions had declined to answer directly Deutch’s questions raising the specter of Trump interference in the Russia investigation, querying on whether the President had the power to fire Mueller or pardon any Trump associates charged in the scandal.

In his defense, Sessions said he had not researched certain legal questions or fully thought out matters related to the presidential authority brought so clearly to the fore in the Russia probe Trump abhors. (Last May, when he fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been leading the bureau’s investigation, Trump told NBC he had been thinking “of this Russia thing” and frustrated at the attention it was getting.)

For his part, Sessions said he was just being cautious.

“The attorney general,” he said, “should not be giving legal opinions from the seat of his britches.”