When It Comes to Jeff Sessions, D.C. Stands for "Dodge City"

President Trump arrived in Washington, D.C. last week with enough conflicts of interest to fill a cattle car. And if Senator Jeff Sessions gets confirmed as Attorney General, he's going to have to deal with many of them.

During his confirmation hearing and in written follow-up questions, Senators on the Judiciary Committee pressed Sessions for answers on whether he would recuse himself from wrestling with a whole herd of Trump's conflicts, given his role as a Trump's political advisor and confidante. Sessions studiously sidestepped them all.

Apparently Sessions thinks D.C. stands for "Dodge City."

"Given the extent of your involvement in President-Elect Trump's political campaign, will you recuse yourself from any decision regarding whether to bring federal criminal prosecutions in connection with Russian hacking of the election?" asked Senator Feinstein, the committee's ranking Democrat.

"I am not aware of a basis to recuse myself from such matters," responded Sessions.

"Will you recuse yourself from conflicts of interest charges against the President-elect or members of his family?" asked Senator Leahy.

"I am not aware of a basis to recuse myself from such matters," responded Sessions.

Will you recuse yourself if the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel finds that President Trump violated the Constitution's ban on gifts or income from foreign governments or agents? asked Senator Durbin.

Same answer.

How about if the President or his family engage in insider trading in violation of the STOCK Act? asked Senator Blumenthal.

Same answer.

Sessions pleaded ignorance of any reasons to recuse himself on possible constitutional or ethical violations by the President or his family more than a dozen times.

When Senator Leahy pushed the issue, Sessions doubled down.

"If merely being a supporter of the President's during the campaign warranted recusal from involvement in any matter involving him, then most typical presidential appointees would be unable to conduct their duties," Sessions replied.

But Sessions knows full well he was more than a "mere supporter" of Donald Trump. Sessions was the first U.S. Senator to endorse Trump, served as his close advisor throughout most of the presidential campaign and the transition, and was the one who officially nominated him at the GOP convention in Cleveland.

Trump's campaign manager at the time, Paul Manafort, told the press that Sessions has become a "very close personal friend and adviser" to Trump. "

"When Jeff Sessions calls, Mr. Trump listens," an inside source told a New York Magazine reporter.

For a while, Sessions even led the list of possible VP picks.

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Sessions' claim of ignorance of any grounds for recusal when it comes to criminal or ethical violations involving Trump, his campaign, or his family rings hollow, especially in light of the Department of Justice's (DOJ) own regulations.

Those regulations, found at 28 CFR § 45.2, state that, "no employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with . . . [a]ny person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution."

The regs define "political relationship" as "a close identification with an elected official [or] a candidate . . . arising from service as a principal adviser thereto." A "[p]ersonal relationship means a close and substantial connection of the type normally viewed as likely to induce partiality."

Interpreting the DOJ's conflicts rules shouldn't be a hard call for a lawyer of Sessions' caliber—unless that lawyer is dodging. Oddly, Sessions never mentioned them.

Sessions also doesn't think the millions that corporations and their trade associations and lobbyists have poured into his campaigns over the years require him to step back from the DOJ's handling of mergers or legal violations involving those companies.

A recent report by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) found that at least a third of Sessions' top political donors have current matters involving the DOJ.

"I am not aware of a basis to recuse myself from such matters," repeated Sessions.

Sessions hasn't been nearly as forgiving with others' potential conflicts of interest as he appears to be with President Trump's or his own.

Senator Durbin confronted Sessions with a Senate floor speech he made in 1998 in which he opined about the "fundamental principle that a man or woman can only serve one master, not two, and should not be holding public office with a clear conflict of interest."

"Somewhere in the Book of Ecclesiastes the preacher said 'A bribe corrupts the mind,'" Sessions continued. "A conflict of interest corrupts the mind. The person is torn. You cannot serve two masters. You can only serve one master."

But Sessions would not disavow Trump's statement that "the president can't have a conflict of interest."

And he appeared ready to give President Trump a pass on his handling of his business conflicts. "President Trump has stated that he will comply with his legal ethical obligations, and in fact, that he will take additional steps beyond what may be required under the Constitution," Sessions told Senator Leahy.

Sessions dodged many other ethics questions as well. He wasn't any more forthcoming when Judiciary Committee senators probed very specific problems, like foreign embassies renting space at the Trump International Hotel in DC, Trump's apparent violation of the hotel's lease terms, Trump pursuing trade policies that would benefit his foreign holdings, or Trump's children participating in government policy discussions while operating the family business empire.

"The question posited is not one on which I have devoted any study," he repeated over and over and over.

Sessions pleaded ignorance on everything from intelligence agency investigations into Russian government contacts with the Trump campaign to Trump's illegal campaign contributions to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi after she declined to join a lawsuit against Trump University for fraud.

Pretending not to know what people are asking about is the oldest dodge in the book.

And this time it just might work.


This article was written by Arn Pearson in his capacity as Senior Fellow at People for the American Way

Arn Pearson

Arn Pearson is CMD's General Counsel and Policy Advisor. He previously served as the Vice President for Policy and Litigation at Common Cause. Arn has worked for more than 20 years developing federal and state policy and legal strategies around campaign finance reform, government ethics, corporate accountability, and tax reform.