Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

Mueller's Team Shows Growing Interest In Sessions' Recusal

May 30, 2018 - 2:24 pm
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WASHINGTON (WCBS 880/CBS News) -- Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team in recent months has been showing more interest in President Donald Trump’s interactions with Attorney General Jeff Sessions concerning Sessions’ recusal from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, Trump said Monday that he wished he had picked somebody else for attorney general.

CBS News White House Correspondent Steven Portnoy said Mueller’s team has taken particular interest in a meeting that the New York Times reported on for the first time Wednesday morning. The meeting happened in March 2017 at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, the report said.

March 2017 is the same month in which Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe.

“At the meeting, Mr. Trump is said to have urged Sessions to reverse his recusal, and he did not do that. Sessions did not do that, because he was advised by career prosecutors within the Justice Department that it was not the right thing to do, because he had been a senior aide to the Trump campaign and the investigation touched on the Trump campaign, and so he has stuck by that decision despite the very public pressure that the president has put on Sessions, and the public way that the president has expressed his disapproval with that decision,” Portnoy said.

The question now is whether there is a case to be made that Trump asking Sessions to reverse his recusal was illegal and constituted obstruction of justice. Trump’s attorneys maintain that it was not, and did not.

“Attorneys for the president say that urging the attorney general to reverse his recusal would have been a legitimate exercise of his power under the Constitution, and it shouldn’t even be something that the special counsel can ask about,” Portnoy said.

Trump’s attorneys have long argued that Article 2 powers of the Constitution invest in the chief executive broad powers -- enough, for instance, to allow Mr. Trump's insults and even to tell a recused attorney general that he should keep an eye on the Russia investigation by keeping it within the Justice Department.

At least some of Trump's lawyers, however, would admit this is unwise and politically hazardous. 

Former mayor and now Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani told the New York Times Wednesday that he hasn't discussed Sessions' recusal with the president, but he argued that requesting Sessions to take control of the Russia investigation is within Trump's authority. 

"'Unrecuse' doesn't say, 'Bury the investigation,'" he told the Times. "It says on the face of it: Take responsibility for it and handle it correctly." 

According to a source familiar with the investigation, however, a reverse recusal is not something that would be considered in this case, CBS News' Paula Reid reports. Sessions made the decision to recuse himself on the advice of career Justice Department officials.  The president's pressure on Sessions is part of the wider obstruction of justice probe and was the focus of Sessions' interview with Mueller

The Justice Department did not respond to CBS News' request for comment. 

Various sources, according to Garrett, say Sessions has never relented and never second-guessed his decision to recuse, and he has resisted Trump's various pressure tactics. Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus had previously been told by Trump in July that Sessions had to go, but Priebus delayed, and Trump ultimately let go of the idea of forcing Session to resign. 

In essence, Trump has never forgiven Sessions for recusing himself because he wanted an attorney general similar to the way the president perceived Obama Attorney General Eric Holder -- defiant, politically ruthless and willing to defend the Obama administration on all fronts. The president has told confidants he thought Holder always backed Obama and fought aggressively against congressional inquiries. Based on this perception of Holder's tenacity, Sessions has suffered by comparison. Trump blames Sessions for the very existence of the special counsel because he believes if Sessions had been attorney general, he would have resisted a special counsel appointment. 

Meanwhile, a remark by U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina) on "CBS This Morning" Wednesday prompted a quick response from President Trump. Gowdy suggested that he sympathized with the president's frustration with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, over his recusal from the Russia investigation, and he said he thought that Sessions could have informed the president of his recusal prior to accepting the nomination, so that Trump then "could have picked somebody else" to be attorney general. 

President Trump soon tweeted a response: "I wish I did!"

Asked about the Times report, Gowdy also argued that the president's request that Sessions reverse his recusal doesn't constitute obstruction of justice.

"I think what the President is doing is expressing frustration that Attorney General Sessions should have shared these reasons for recusal before he took the job, not afterward. If I were the President and I picked someone to be the country's chief law enforcement officer, and they told me later, 'Oh by the way I'm not going to be able to participate in the most important case in the office, I would be frustrated, too, and that's how I read that, is, 'Senator Sessions, why didn't you tell me before I picked you?' There are lots of really good lawyers in the country -- he could have picked someone else," Gowdy told "CBS This Morning." 

This isn't the first time Trump has publicly attacked his attorney general over Sessions' recusal from the probe. Trump previously told the New York Times in 2017 that he wouldn't have tapped Sessions to serve as attorney general if he had known he would remove himself from the investigation. 

"Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president," the president said in the 50-minute interview. "How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, 'Thanks, Jeff, but I'm not going to take you.' It's extremely unfair -- and that's a mild word -- to the president," Trump said. 

Sessions, however, has stood by his decision, telling Time magazine in March that he thinks he did the "right thing."

"I don't think the attorney general can ask everybody else in the department to follow the rules if the attorney general doesn't follow them," said Sessions at the time.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News contributed to this report.)