With the FBI under heavy fire over allegations that political partisanship tainted the investigation into President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggested Friday that investigators had sometimes strayed from the Justice Department’s duty to be fair and impartial.
“My purpose every day is to get the Department back to its fundamental mission of enforcing the law and protecting the safety of Americans with integrity and fairness,” Sessions said during a speech in Norfolk, Va. “That’s the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning, and that’s what my team works at every day.”
In his remarks, the attorney general did not refer directly to claims from Trump and Republican lawmakers that political concerns infected the Russia investigation being headed by special counsel Robert Mueller. Those allegations of bias have been fueled in recent weeks by the Justice Department’s disclosure of thousands of text messages exchanged by two FBI officials who worked on the inquiry. Some of those messages contain disparaging comments about Trump and flattering remarks about his opponent in the general election, Hillary Clinton.
However, without giving specifics, Sessions implied that some of the criticism leveled at his department was justified.
“We need to do our duty and follow the law,” the attorney general told an audience composed largely of federal, state and local law enforcement officials. “It means absolutely eliminating political bias or favoritism — in either direction—from our investigations and our prosecutions. That sort of thinking is the antithesis of what the department stands for. We will not tolerate it.”
Sessions, who spent 20 years as a senator from Alabama, also warned Justice Department officials not to recoil from congressional demands for information about alleged wrongdoing.
“We don’t see criticism from Congress as necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “We welcome Congress as a partner in our effort to get better. When they learn of a problem and start asking questions, that is a good thing. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, truly. A culture of defensiveness is not acceptable. The Department of Justice does not always know what’s best, we’re not always perfect. No one is. And, it can never be that our department would conceal errors if they are to occur.”
Sessions devoted the bulk of his remarks to the Trump administration’s claims that cracking down on illegal immigration would improve national security and limit crime.
But the attorney general also tried to strike a balance of sorts between lawmakers’ calls for action and Justice Department employees who see senior officials as joining in attacks on career investigators and prosecutors.
“If anyone falls short of these standards, we will not hesitate to take appropriate action — and we will do so in accordance with the rules and procedures of the Department of Justice,” Sessions said. “And, while we are open to fair criticism, and we of course defend investigators and prosecutors from unfair criticism, our goal is justice. … We will not reject a justified review.”
One open question, however, is who will conduct such reviews. Sessions has recused himself from all investigations related to the 2016 campaigns, although earlier this week he pledged disciplinary action — if appropriate — over what appeared to be a failure by the FBI to preserve text messages exchanged by personnel on the Russia investigation. That issue may have fizzled after the Justice Department’s internal watchdog, Inspector General Michael Horowitz, reported this week that investigators managed to retrieve the messages.
Still unclear is how department officials will respond to a report that Horowitz is expected to release in March or April about allegations of political bias and other alleged misconduct in the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Both Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have publicly declared that they believe former FBI Director James Comey violated department policy in his handling of the inquiry, but they would normally be in the chain of command to approve or disapprove of disciplinary action that might be taken against Comey aides or other department employees involved in the investigation.
During his speech on Friday, delivered at a public library, Sessions confirmed a reported high-level FBI personnel move that may be a product of recent tumult at the FBI. The attorney general said the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Dana Boente, would soon become general counsel of the FBI. Boente, who served as acting attorney general for a time last year after Trump fired a Obama holdover, Sally Yates, will replace James Baker.
“Dana has just been a right hand to me. Somebody I trust, I like, I value. You’ve got to have people around you like that,” Sessions said, noting that while he was speaking in Boente’s district, Boente could not be present because of a scheduling conflict. “You have got to have people around you like that. … Now, he’ll be assuming a critically important role as chief counsel at the FBI.”
Baker, who was a top adviser to Comey, was reassigned in December for reasons the FBI has not explained.
“Wow, ‘FBI lawyer James Baker reassigned,’ according to @FoxNews,” Trump tweeted last month as he blasted the FBI for being slow to move out Comey advisers like Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
Sessions and White House aides have reportedly urged the new FBI director, Christopher Wray, to replace top officials at the bureau who served alongside Comey. The FBI declined to comment on the reports.