A lawyer for Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday that Sessions is not under investigation for lying to Congress, though he issued a statement appearing to confirm that was once an area of interest for the special counsel.
In a statement, Chuck Cooper, Sessions’ personal attorney, said, “The Special Counsel’s Office has informed me that after interviewing the Attorney General and conducting additional investigation, the Attorney General is not under investigation for false statements or perjury in his confirmation hearing testimony and related written submissions to Congress.”
Cooper declined to comment beyond the statement. A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.
The statement came in response to an ABC News report that suggests former FBI official Andrew McCabe – whom Sessions fired from the bureau last week – had overseen a criminal investigation into whether Sessions lacked candor when testifying before Congress about his contacts with Russian operatives.
McCabe’s firing, which came just 26 hours before he could retire and is likely to deny him significant retirement benefits, has ignited a political firestorm. The former FBI deputy director and interim director alleged he was terminated as part of a ploy to undermine the bureau and the special counsel’s investigation. President Donald Trump has used the episode to take aim at that probe.
Sessions has said publicly the firing was recommended by the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which concluded McCabe “had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor – including under oath – on multiple occasions.” The recommendation was based on findings from the Justice Department inspector general, who has been probing the FBI’s handling of the investigation into former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, including some of McCabe’s actions in the course of that case.
The Washington Post could not immediately confirm McCabe’s role in a probe of Sessions, though as a top FBI official, he probably would have had visibility into such an investigation. A person close to Sessions said the attorney general was “not aware of this investigation at the time McCabe was fired.” Through a representative, McCabe declined to comment.
That the attorney general was of interest in some capacity to Special Counsel Robert Mueller beyond being a witness is significant – reinforcing how Mueller’s probe has led him to the president’s most senior advisers. Sessions has recused himself from supervising Mueller’s probe because of his role in the Trump campaign, leaving that authority to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Mueller’s team interviewed Sessions in January; his investigators also have interviewed Rosenstein. Mueller is investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election, and whether the president obstructed justice in his dealings with law enforcement, including in firing James Comey as the FBI director in May.
Sessions has long faced criticism for statements he made to Congress at his confirmation hearing when asked about campaign contacts with Russians. The exchange at issue came with then-Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who had asked Sessions what he would do as attorney general if there was any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government.
Sessions responded: “Sen. Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have – did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
The Washington Post later revealed that Sessions had the year before spoken twice with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Sessions corrected his congressional testimony after that report to acknowledge the contacts, though even then he insisted his “answer was correct.”
“I answered the question, which asked about a ‘continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,’ honestly,” Sessions said. “I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them.”
The apparent discrepancy prompted calls for an investigation into whether the attorney general had committed perjury. David Carle, a spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Leahy and Franken asked that the FBI, then led by Comey and, later, by McCabe, “look into his testimony as well as his contacts with Russian officials.” The FBI wrote back on May 31, saying it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an ongoing investigation. By that time, McCabe was in charge of the bureau, and Mueller had been appointed as special counsel.
McCabe himself is now facing allegations from the Justice Department inspector general that he lacked candor in answering questions from investigators about a conversation he authorized two other FBI officials to have with a reporter.
McCabe disputes those allegations – the details of which remain murky, because the inspector general has yet to release a report on the matter. The inspector general’s withholding of that report has fueled speculation on the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill that prosecutors might be mulling whether McCabe should face a criminal inquiry and thus that the document cannot be made public.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Matt Zapotosky, Karoun Demirjian