Sessions’ Firing McCabe Violated His Promise to Recuse

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to fire former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe appears to directly violate the promise he made, under oath, to recuse himself from such matters.

Some might contend that Sessions’ recusal covered only the Clinton and Trump campaigns, and that McCabe’s firing involved the Clinton Foundation investigation as a separate matter. But Sessions unequivocally assured senators of his intentions during his confirmation hearings in response to a clear and specific question from the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Sen. Grassley asked a follow-up question that went right to the point. In response, Sessions very clearly said his recusal would cover any matters involving the Clinton Foundation.

Here is the full exchange:

GRASSLEY: During the course of the presidential campaign, you made a number of statements about the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, relating to her handling of sensitive emails and regarding certain actions of the Clinton Foundation. You weren’t alone in that criticism. I was certainly critical in the same way as were millions of Americans on those matters, but now, you’ve been nominated to serve as attorney general. In light of those comments that you made, some have expressed concerns about whether you can approach the Clinton matter impartially in both fact and appearance. How do you plan to address those concerns?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, it was a highly contentious campaign. I, like a lot of people, made comments about the issues in that campaign. With regard to Secretary Clinton and some of the comments I made, I do believe that that could place me objectivity in question. I’ve given that thought.

I believe the proper thing for me to do, would be to recuse myself from any questions involving those kind of investigations that involve Secretary Clinton and that were raised during the campaign or to be otherwise connected to it.

GRASSLEY: OK. I think, that’s — let me emphasize then with a follow up question. To be very clear, you intend to recuse yourself from both the Clinton e-mail investigation and any matters involving the Clinton Foundation, if there are any?

SESSIONS: Yes.

This exchange has two implications for how one understands the scope of Sessions’ recusal. First, it goes to defining the scope of the recusal that Sessions made on March 2, 2017. If it is a close call whether the Clinton Foundation matter is sufficiently connected to the Clinton campaign for purpose of understanding Sessions’ recusal, it should be deemed to be sufficiently connected. After all, that’s essentially what Sessions told Sen. Grassley. Second, if the Clinton Foundation matter is deemed outside the scope of the recusal statement that Sessions made back in March last year, then his decision to fire McCabe shows that he failed to honor the promise for a broader recusal which he clearly made to the Senate in its decision to confirm him as Attorney General. The same goes for Hillary Clinton’s emails. Sen. Grassley’s questions and Sessions’ answers specifically covered any matters involving that investigation as well. 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016) Follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.