Attorney General Jeff Sessions is entertaining the idea of appointing a second special counsel to investigate a host of Republican concerns — including alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation and the controversial sale of a uranium company to Russia — and has directed senior federal prosecutors to explore at least some of the matters and report back to him and his top deputy, according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post.
The revelation came in a response by the Justice Department to an inquiry from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who in July and again in September called for Sessions to appoint a second special counsel to investigate concerns he had related to the 2016 election and its aftermath.
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The list of matters he wanted probed was wide ranging but included the FBI's handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, various dealings of the Clinton Foundation and several matters connected to the purchase of the Canadian mining company Uranium One by Russia's nuclear energy agency. Goodlatte took particular aim at former FBI director James B. Comey, asking for the second special counsel to evaluate the leaks he directed about his conversations with President Trump, among other things.
In response, Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd wrote that Sessions had "directed senior federal prosecutors to evaluate certain issues raised in your letters," and that those prosecutors would "report directly to the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, as appropriate, and will make recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources, or whether any matters merit the appointment of a Special Counsel."
Trump has repeatedly criticized his Justice Department for not aggressively probing a variety of conservative concerns. He said recently that officials there "should be looking at the Democrats" and that it was "very discouraging" they were not "going after Hillary Clinton." On the campaign trail, Trump's supporters frequently chanted "Lock her up!" at the mention of Clinton's name.
"Hopefully they are doing something, and at some point, maybe we are going to all have it out," Trump said recently.
Sessions's relationship with the president has been significantly strained since he recused himself from the investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election. The president has publicly lambasted his attorney general and noted that had he known in advance of Sessions's recusal, he would not have appointed him to the post. It was after Sessions's recusal that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed Robert S. Mueller III to lead the investigation into the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
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While the Justice Department is part of the executive branch — and the attorney general is appointed by and answers to the president — the White House generally provides input on broad policy goals and does not weigh in on criminal probes.
In that context, the letter is likely to be seen by some, especially on the left, as Sessions inappropriately bending to political pressure, perhaps to save his job. The possible reigniting of a probe of Clinton is likely to draw especially fierce criticism, even as it is welcomed by Trump's supporters.
When Trump said during the campaign that he would "instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor" to look into Clinton, former attorney general Michael Mukasey — a Trump supporter and vocal Clinton critic — said Trump having her investigated and jailed "would be like a banana republic."
"Putting political opponents in jail for offenses committed in a political setting, even if they are criminal offenses — and they very well may be — is something that we don't do here," he said.
Trump would later back down from his threats, before breathing life into them again with his more recent comments.
Sessions, who was a Republican senator from Alabama before being appointed attorney general, is set to testify before Goodlatte's committee Tuesday and is likely to face questions on the topics raised in the letter.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment for this article, as did a lawyer for Comey.
Brian Fallon, who served as the press secretary for the Clinton campaign, noted that the Justice Department letter became public not long after revelations that Donald Trump Jr. had communicated with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.
"Like clockwork, just as we learn of damning details of Donald Trump Jr.'s contacts with WikiLeaks, the Trump administration is firing up the fog machine to distract from the Mueller probe," Fallon said.
In asking for a second special counsel in July, Goodlatte wrote that he wanted to "request assistance in restoring public confidence in our nation's justice system and its investigators." His letter, signed by 19 other Republicans, said Judiciary Committee members were concerned that Mueller might not have a broad enough mandate to investigate other election-related matters, which he said included actions taken by Comey, Clinton and then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
Many of the items Goodlatte wanted investigated had long been conservative talking points, some having to do with matters many considered resolved: various decisions made in the Clinton email case, the Uranium One purchase, the "unmasking" of people by the intelligence community and allegations by Trump that he was wiretapped by his predecessors. Unmasking is a routine part of intelligence officials' jobs; officials have said there is no evidence to support Trump's claims that he was wiretapped; and while conservatives have sought to cast the Uranium One deal as an example of Clinton taking Russian money to influence U.S. policy, there is no evidence that Clinton participated in any discussions regarding the sale, which was approved during the Obama administration while she was secretary of state.
In the Justice Department's response, Boyd did not indicate whether any of the topics might draw greater interest than others, though he said the review by senior federal prosecutors would "better enable the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General to more effectively evaluate and manage the caseload." He noted that the Justice Department inspector general already was investigating several aspects of the Clinton email case and said that once that probe was complete, the department would assess "what, if any, additional steps are necessary to address any issues identified by that review."
"We will conduct this evaluation according to the highest standards of justice," he wrote.
A special counsel can be appointed when the Justice Department or a U.S. attorney's office has a conflict of interest, when there are other "extraordinary circumstances," or when it would otherwise be "in the public interest" to do so, according to the federal regulation governing such appointments.
Sessions likely to be questioned about Trump campaign dealings with Russians at House Judiciary hearing