Sessions' dubious promise to be apolitical

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ appearance before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday frustrated questioners on both ends of the political spectrum, and that was likely his intent. From memory lapses (there were quite a few) and corrections of the record on Russia (ditto) to his overall haziness on federal law (he skipped Senate antitrust briefings during his former job, apparently), the questions arrived from committee members quickly and often testily, but the answers (such as they were) came out slowly and haltingly. If there was a core message, the 70-year-old Selma native just wanted to say in his folksy way that he he intends to keep the U.S. Department of Justice above partisan politics.

Great idea. Wish President Donald J. Trump shared it. But the intent is also somewhat contradicted by the other bit of information that came out of the Justice Department this week — word that the agency is considering appointing a special counsel to look at what have been essentially President Trump’s favorite “Whataboutism” talking points during the presidential campaign. Whenever asked about something uncomfortable, he loved to throw out a “what about...” question about some other, generally unrelated, typically distorted and universally non-germane topic, mostly related to Hillary Clinton. The latest crop includes the former secretary of state’s use of a private email server, which was already judged as undeserving of criminal prosecution by former FBI director James B. Comey, the dealings of the Clinton Foundation and the sale of a Canadian mining company Uranium One to Russia, which may be the least scandalous “scandal” of them all.

That’s quite a bit of ground to cover but, as a shortcut, we would urge readers to simply visit the nearest independent fact-checking internet site and witness how slender a thread Republicans are grasping. The United States doesn’t have a tradition of using the federal judiciary as a cudgel so a sitting president can bash his political opponent, but that’s essentially what’s going on here. Special counsels are a rarity. Suddenly, we need one because Ms. Clinton was exonerated by Mr. Comey who, by the way, may have single-handedly sabotaged her presidential campaign by releasing a letter last year to Congress — in late October! — announcing he had more errant emails to check which, oh, turned out to be nothing. Or because she was one of nine cabinet members who advised President Barack Obama on the Uranium One sale?

Now, it’s possible Mr. Sessions is being sincere. That he didn’t initially remember much about his meetings with fellow foreign policy “experts” in the Trump campaign when the subject of Russia was broached despite having a vivid (albeit only recently returned) recollection of telling George Papadopoulos that he wasn’t authorized to represent the Trump campaign to the Russians. One of his more candid asides on Tuesday was a description of the Trump campaign as chaotic and the foreign policy committee as “not effective.” Nor was the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia the only area where Mr. Sessions revealed a glaring lack of knowledge — he frustrated questioners, Republicans and Democrats, over matters related to the so-called Steele dossier, the extent of a president’s ability to pardon (“the attorney general shouldn’t give legal opinions from the seat of his britches,” he testified at one point) and white extremist groups who kill police officers, to name just a few.

As Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, observed, Mr. Sessions is no stranger to the words, “I don’t recall,” having said them 29 times and 36 times (or something similar) during just two of his three appearances on the Senate side and at least 20 times Tuesday before Mr. Jeffries got his five minutes to ask questions. The only comfort was that the witness was as circumspect with Republicans on such areas as whether ex-spy Christopher Steele was ever on the payroll of the FBI. “It could involve classified material,” he explained to an irate GOP committee member.

It’s no secret that Mr. Sessions is not Mr. Trump’s favorite cabinet member. The president was famously disappointed that the attorney general recused himself from the Russia investigation — as federal regulations required. Will he now try to please his boss by doing his bidding with a Clinton-focused investigation, perhaps involving another special counsel? Mr. Sessions insisted he will go where the facts take him. Based on the evidence presented to date, it’s hard to believe Ms. Clinton or Mr. Comey have much to fear if that’s truly the case. But then again, the ground seems to keep shifting around Mr. Sessions. At least as far as anyone can remember as of today — but just don’t call that deliberately misleading. What was the question again?

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