A TEST FOR JEFF SESSIONS

[This post was also published at The American Lawyer on January 13, 2017.]

The Justice Department’s Inspector General is looking into James Comey’s disclosures of the Clinton email investigation. But I’m not confident that he’ll reach the most important issue in that debacle: the underlying leaks that probably contributed to Comey’s actions. That will require Jeff Sessions to pick up the baton.

During his Senate confirmation hearings on January 10, Senator Sessions (R-AL) assured colleagues that he’s not Donald Trump’s lackey. Here’s his first test: Find out who at the FBI leaked information to Rudy Giuliani during the final weeks of the campaign.

Those leaks probably forced FBI Director James Comey into the corner producing actions that cost him and the Bureau integrity for years to come. They may have swung the election to Trump, too, but done is done. It’s not about re-litigating the last election. As United States attorney general, Sessions has to assure the integrity of the next one. 

Roll the Tape

In October, polls showed Trump losing so badly that he was likely to cost Republicans the Senate. Three months earlier, Director Comey had announced that no reasonable prosecutor would bring criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. But in an unprecedented press conference, he’d opined about her recklessness anyway. That kept Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” rally theme alive. Even so, as summer turned to fall, the email-gate story was losing its legs.

On October 25, Rudy Giuliani appeared on Fox & Friends. When a host asked whether him Trump had anything other than “some more inspiring rallies” planned for the remaining 14 days of the campaign, Giuliani chuckled.

“Yes,” he grinned.

“What?” a co-host asked.

“You’ll see,” Giuliani answered in a full-throated laugh. “We’ve got a couple of surprises left. I call them surprises in the way we’re going to campaign, to get our message out there. Maybe in a little bit of a different way. You’ll see, and I think it’ll be enormously effective.”

Giuliani then discussed how “all of these revelations about Hillary Clinton, finally, are beginning to have an impact.”

On October 26, conservative radio talk show host Lars Larson interviewed Giuliani.

“There’s a kind of revolution going on inside the FBI about the original [July] conclusion being completely unjustified and almost a slap in the face of the FBI’s integrity,” Giuliani said. “I know that from former agents. I know that even from a few active agents who, obviously, don’t want to identify themselves.”

The same day, Giuliani appeared with Fox reporter Martha MacCallum. As the interview ended, he interrupted her to volunteer, “And I think he’s [Trump] got a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next few days.”

MacCallum tried to conclude the interview, but Giuliani kept pushing: “I mean, I’m talking about some pretty big surprises.”

Finally, MacCallum took the bait.

“I heard you saying that this morning,” she said. “What do you mean?”

“You’ll see,” Giuliani laughed.

Friday, October 28

Shortly after Giuliani’s teasers, Comey violated Justice Department guidelines with a letter informing Congress that the Bureau was reviewing additional evidence relating to the Clinton email investigation. Immediately, Giuliani backpedaled.

“I don’t know anything about leaks from the FBI or the Justice Department,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I haven’t talked to anybody in the FBI or Justice Department.”

When Blitzer confronted Giuliani with the Lars Larson interview, Giuliani responded, “Well, the information I’ve been getting is from former FBI agents. If I did say that, that was wrong.”

But Giuliani’s distinction doesn’t help the Bureau. Whether the leaks came directly from active agents, or whether active agents leaked to retired agents who then went to Giuliani, they originated within the FBI. In addition to professional responsibilities of confidentiality under the ABA Standards on Prosecutorial Investigations, agents sign employment agreements that have sharp non-disclosure teeth. Certain FBI personnel working on the Clinton investigation also signed a “Case Briefing Acknowledgement” in which they agreed, “[D]ue to the nature and sensitivity of this investigation, compliance with these restrictions may be subject to verification by polygraph examination.”

Lie detectors!

Wednesday, November 2 

Less than a week before Election Day, another FBI leak produced a new bombshell. Bret Baier of Fox News cited “two separate sources with intimate knowledge of the FBI investigations” for what turned out to be a bogus report. He said that the Clinton investigations would likely to lead to an indictment. Trump milked that one. As rally crowds responded with “Lock her up” even more loudly than before, some members of the mob added, “Execute her!”

By Thursday, Baier admitted that he’d spoken “inartfully” about the false FBI report. By Friday, he was in full retreat: “That just wasn’t inartful, it was a mistake and for that I’m sorry.”

When MSNBC’s Brian Williams grilled campaign manager Kellyanne Conway on whether Trump would stop using the earlier false report in his stump speech, she smiled and said, “Well, the damage is done to Hillary Clinton…”

Sunday, November 6

Then Comey sent another letter confirming that his earlier missive had been a false alarm. But by then, early voters had cast 40 million ballots — almost 30 million of which came after his October 30 letter. Meanwhile, Trump had spent the week telling crowds that Clinton’s problems were “bigger than Watergate” and that criminal investigations into her dealings would continue for years into her presidency.

When confronted with Comey’s latest exoneration of Clinton, Kellyanne Conway kept her smile as she told MSNBC, “We have not made this a centerpiece of our messaging… This has not been front and center of our campaign.”

If all of this had happened to Trump, hearings in the Republican Congress would have begun immediately after the election. Rudy Giuliani would be under oath and senators would be asking him to name his FBI sources — active or retired.

In fact, Trump said that he wanted a full-scale investigation into leaks of the U.S. intelligence report on Russian hacking. The ones that emanated from the FBI are far more consequential to the future of American democracy.

OPEN LETTER #3 TO PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP: A JOB FOR JEFF SESSIONS

Dear President-elect Trump,

Sometimes your lack of impulse control works for you. For example, on Friday night, you lashed out at the Broadway hit, Hamilton. With the stroke of a few tweets, you dominated the weekend news cycle. The fun ended Sunday morning, when Vice-President-elect Mike Pence told CBS’s John Dickerson that Hamilton was “a great show.”

Pence “wasn’t offended” by a 90-second post-performance comment on behalf of the cast and producers. Your tweets had demanded an apology from them, but it turned out that you now owe one — for misstating the facts and challenging First Amendment principles.

You achieved a larger objective. Your twitter tantrum diverted popular attention from: your thumbs-up group photo after meeting with business partners developing a Trump-branded luxury apartment complex in India; white nationalists convening in Washington to celebrate your election; and your selection of National Security Adviser-designate Mike Flynn, who called Islam a “cancer” and a “political ideology hiding behind religion.” He’s also a board member of ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “far and away the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America.”

Master Distracter

Your Hamilton tweets also moved the spotlight away from your attorney general-designate. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s Republican Senate put Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court and made William Rehnquist chief justice. But even at the height of the Reagan revolution, Alabama’s then-U.S. attorney Sessions became only the second nominee in 48 years to be rejected for a federal judgeship. Now he’ll be your attorney general.

In a normal world, Sessions’ earlier defeat would doom your nominee. But you’re normalizing the abnormal. When Steve Bannon is the baseline for comparison, even Jeff Sessions looks good. He shouldn’t.

Sessions on the Merits

The junior senator from Alabama is one of its most conservative members. He opposes: any path to legalizing undocumented immigrants, gay marriage, abortion, and the legalization of marijuana. He voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. His portfolio is a distressing compilation of what you seem to mean by “Make America Great Again.”

Sessions is far out of step with most Americans. (Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory — 1.5 million ballots and growing — proves that you are, too.) But resigned to his confirmation, I propose a bipartisan assignment for him: restore the integrity of the FBI. It will require a public investigation into events culminating in your election.

Roll the Tape

In October, polls showed you losing so badly that you were likely to cost Republicans the Senate. Three months earlier, FBI Director James Comey had announced that no reasonable prosecutor would bring criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. But in an unprecedented press conference, he’d opined about her recklessness anyway. That kept your “Crooked Hillary” rally theme alive. Even so, as summer turned to fall, the email-gate story was losing its legs.

On October 25, your key surrogate, Rudy Giuliani appeared on Fox & Friends. When a host asked whether you had anything other than “some more inspiring rallies” planned for the remaining 14 days of the campaign, Giuliani chuckled.

“Yes,” he grinned.

“What?” a co-host asked.

“You’ll see,” Giuliani answered in a full-throated laugh. “We’ve got a couple of surprises left. I call them surprises in the way we’re going to campaign, to get our message out there. Maybe in a little bit of a different way. You’ll see, and I think it’ll be enormously effective.”

Giuliani then discussed how “all of these revelations about Hillary Clinton, finally, are beginning to have an impact.”

On October 26, conservative radio talk show host Lars Larson interviewed Giuliani.

“There’s a kind of revolution going on inside the FBI about the original [July] conclusion being completely unjustified and almost a slap in the face of the FBI’s integrity,” Giuliani said. “I know that from former agents. I know that even from a few active agents who, obviously, don’t want to identify themselves.”

The same day, Giuliani appeared with Fox reporter Martha MacCallum. As the interview ended, he interrupted her to volunteer, “And I think he’s [Trump] got a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next few days.”

MacCallum tried to conclude the interview, but Giuliani kept pushing: “I mean, I’m talking about some pretty big surprises.”

Finally, MacCallum took the bait.

“I heard you saying that this morning,” she said. “What do you mean?”

“You’ll see,” Giuliani laughed.

Friday, October 28

Only days after Giuliani’s teasers, Comey violated Justice Department guidelines with a letter informing Congress that the Bureau was reviewing additional evidence relating to the Clinton email investigation. Immediately, Giuliani backpedaled.

“I don’t know anything about leaks from the FBI or the Justice Department,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “I haven’t talked to anybody in the FBI or Justice Department.”

When Blitzer confronted Giuliani with the Lars Larson interview, Giuliani responded, “Well, the information I’ve been getting is from former FBI agents. If I did say that, that was wrong.”

In 48 hours, Giuliani had gone from “I know that even from a few active agents who, obviously don’t want to identify themselves” to “the information I’ve been getting is from former FBI agents.”

But Giuliani’s distinction didn’t help the Bureau. Whether the leaks came directly from active agents, or whether active agents leaked to retired agents who then went to Giuliani, they originated within the FBI. In addition to professional responsibilities of confidentiality under the ABA Standards on Prosecutorial Investigations, agents sign employment agreements that have sharp non-disclosure teeth. Certain FBI personnel working on the Clinton investigation also signed a “Case Briefing Acknowledgement,” agreeing that “due to the nature and sensitivity of this investigation, compliance with these restrictions may be subject to verification by polygraph examination.”

Lie detectors!

Wednesday, November 2 

Less than a week before Election Day, another FBI leak produced a new bombshell. Bret Baier of Fox News cited “two separate sources with intimate knowledge of the FBI investigations” for what turned out to be a bogus report. He said that the Clinton investigations would likely to lead to an indictment. You milked that one. As rally crowds responded with “Lock her up” even more loudly than before, some members of your mob added, “Execute her!”

By Thursday, Baier admitted that he’d spoken “inartfully” about the false FBI report. By Friday, he was in full retreat: “That just wasn’t inartful, it was a mistake and for that I’m sorry.”

When MSNBC’s Brian Williams grilled your campaign manager Kellyanne Conway on whether you would stop using the earlier false report in your stump speech, she smiled and said, “Well, the damage is done to Hillary Clinton…”

Sunday, November 6

Then Comey sent another letter confirming that his earlier missive had been a false alarm. But by then, early voters had cast 40 million ballots — almost 30 million of which came after his October 30 letter. Meanwhile, you’d spent the week telling crowds that Clinton’s problems were “bigger than Watergate” and that criminal investigations into her dealings would continue for years into her presidency.

When confronted with Comey’s latest exoneration of Clinton, Kellyanne Conway kept her smile as she told MSNBC, “We have not made this a centerpiece of our messaging… This has not been front and center of our campaign.”

Sessions could put Rudy Giuliani under oath and ask him to name his FBI sources — active or retired. After all, if this had happened to you, hearings in the Republican Congress would already be underway. Now they’ll never happen. To “Make America Great Again,” start with the FBI, if you dare.

JAMES COMEY AND THE FBI

I hadn’t planned to write another post until after the November 8 election. But on Tuesday, November 1, lightning struck twice.

First, the FBI used its twitter account to post documents relating to President Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich back in 2001. For those who are too young to remember, that presidential action 15 years ago was so controversial that it led prosecutors in the Bush administration to investigate potential criminal wrongdoing. They came up empty.

The second strike came Tuesday evening: the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians and sent the World Series to Game 7.

This post concerns the first bolt from the blue.

Beyond Strange

Taken alone, the FBI’s release of the March Rich documents might have seemed relatively innocuous. But it came on the heels of FBI Director James Comey’s unprecedented letter to Congress on Friday, October 28. Contrary to Donald Trump’s subsequent false assertions, Comey was not “reopening” the Bureau’s closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, Rather, Comey said only that “the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.”

Then it turned out that the emails in question were on former congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer. Reportedly, the emails were to or from his now-estranged wife, Huma Abedin. Then it turned out that the FBI hadn’t even obtained a search warrant to look at any of those Huma Abedin emails that, to Comey, “appeared to be pertinent.” A judge issued the warrant two days after Comey’s explosive letter. Perhaps the FBI director is clairvoyant.

Backlash

The bipartisan outrage against Comey was fast and furious. More than 100 former prosecutors and high-ranking Justice Department officials in Republican and Democratic administrations signed an open letter chastising Comey for his breach of longstanding Justice Department guidelines relating both to the confidentiality of investigations generally and, most especially, to any actions that could affect an imminent election.

In fact, The New York Times reported on November 1 that precisely those well-established guidelines stopped the FBI from taking overt actions to pursue its investigation of Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. The issues involve Manafort’s connections to pro-Russia officials and business leaders in Ukraine. The Times also reported that the FBI likewise delayed activities relating to a Clinton Foundation investigation.

Meanwhile, Richard Painter, a former chief White House ethics counsel for George W. Bush, filed a formal complaint that Comey’s letter to Congress had violated the Hatch Act. It outlaws misuse of a public office by, for example, seeking to influencing an election.

Who Is James Comey?

Even Comey’s detractors have expressed admiration for his character and integrity. Perhaps that’s justified. But lawyers and judges know that the appearance of impropriety can be problematic. In that respect and as relates to Comey, some facts alone may speak for themselves. So without additional comment, here are some facts about James Comey.

1985: Graduated with a J.D. from the the University of Chicago Law School and clerked for Judge John Walker of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

1987: After a brief stint as an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Comey was hired by then-U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Rudy Giuliani. He was an assistant U.S. Attorney until 1993.

1993-1996: Partner in private practice at McGuire Woods in Richmond, VA.

1996: Deputy special counsel for the Senate Committee investigating the Clintons and Whitewater. Eventually, the process led to appointment of a special prosecutor and President Clinton’s impeachment (for which the Senate acquitted him).

1996-2001: Managing assistant U.S. attorney for Richmond division.

2002-2003: U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where his tasks included supervising the criminal investigation of former President Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich.

2003-2005: President George W. Bush’s appointee as deputy attorney general — the number two person at the Justice Department — reporting directly to John Ashcroft. He became known for his standoff over the no-warrant wiretapping program at Ashcroft’s hospital bedside. According to one report of that internecine Republican battle, “Comey rushed to the room of his bedridden boss to physically stop White House officials from trying to get an ailing Ashcroft to reauthorize the program.”

2005-2010: Vice president and general counsel for Lockheed Martin.

2010-2013: Executive at Bridgewater, reported to be the world’s largest hedge fund.

June 21, 2013: President Obama nominates Comey to head the FBI.

July 5, 2016: In a bizarre departure from an investigator’s role, Comey dons his prosecutor hat to announce his recommendation that Hillary Clinton not be indicted for her use of a private email server while Secretary of State. He then offers a similarly unprecedented description of her behavior as, among other things, “extremely careless.”

July 7, 2016: As Congressional Republicans began investigations into Comey’s recommendation, he testifies that he’d been a Republican for most of his adult life, but was no longer a registered member of the GOP.

July-September, 2016: Trump and his surrogates, including Rudy Giuliani, blast Comey for not recommending the indictment of Clinton. Calling the failure a “total outrage,” Giuliani said, “As associate attorney and as Jim Comey’s boss for two or three years, I was very disappointed in him. I think if you read it, it’s logically inconsistent. He contradicts himself at least three times.”

September 28, 2016: For four hours, Comey testifies before the House Oversight Committee, mostly about the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server and his recommendation not to indict her.

October 3, 2016: FBI agents seize Anthony Weiner’s laptop and learn quickly that they include some Huma Abedin emails.

October 28, 2016: Comey sends his letter to Congress about additional materials that “appear to be pertinent.” Two days later, the FBI obtains a search warrant to see what those emails actually say.

November 1, 2016: The FBI releases documents responsive to earlier Freedom of Information Act requests relating to President Clinton’s 2001 pardon of Marc Rich. When pressed, the official FBI comment was that its release of the Rich documents were posted “automatically and electronically to the FBI’s public reading room in accordance with the law and established procedures.” This happens, the statement said, on a “first-in, first-out” basis.

And the FBI twitter account that announced the release? Until October 30, it had been dormant for more than a year — since October 8, 2015.

To the FBI’s official comment that the timing of the release was a coincidence, CNN’s legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin commented, “My official response is, ‘Give me a break.'”

I would add this: Sometimes even paranoid persons have real enemies.