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.

“BRIDGEGATE” TAKES A STRANGE TURN

Chief Justice John Roberts’ annual report on the state the federal judiciary reminds lawyers of their obligations to “avoid antagonistic tactics, wasteful procedural maneuvering, and teetering brinksmanship.” I wonder what he thinks of the “tactics, maneuvering, and brinksmanship” surrounding the latest chapter of “Bridgegate.”

Four Days in September

In 2013, the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey refused to endorse Governor Chris Christie’s re-election campaign. In apparent retribution, Christie’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly sent an email to David Wildstein, Christie’s appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote on August 13.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

On Friday, September 7, Wildstein followed-up: “I will call you Monday AM to let you know how Fort Lee goes.”

Everyone knows how Fort Lee went on Monday, September 10. The Port Authority closed two of three local access lanes on the upper level of the George Washington Bridge. Four days of gridlock near the town continued until September 13, when the Authority’s executive director (a Governor Andrew Cuomo appointee) ordered the lanes reopened.

Getting Ahead of One Story

Several months later, the Kelly-Wildstein emails surfaced. Immediately, Republican presidential hopeful Christie did the fashionable thing: nip a growing scandal in the bud by hiring a respected outside lawyer to conduct an internal investigation. He chose Randy Mastro, former chief of staff to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. According to the firm’s website, Mastro is a partner and member of the management and executive committees at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, current winner of The American Lawyer’s biennial “Litigation Department of the Year” contest.

Christie promised that Mastro would “bring an outside, third-party perspective to the situation” with a “thorough” and “efficient” internal investigation. Gibson Dunn certainly had the firepower to accomplish that mission. Its Bridgegate team included five former federal prosecutors with “experience in internal investigations and criminal cases.” The state of New Jersey picked up Gibson Dunn’s tab. For the first three weeks of work, it charged $1.1 million.

Just two months after the investigation began, Mastro released Gibson Dunn’s final report and provided final witness summaries to the U.S. attorney and the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigations. The report exonerated Christie.

The New York Times described the ensuing press conference: “The former federal prosecutor who led the internal inquiry, Randy M. Mastro, frequently sounded like a defense lawyer making his case to a jury. He referred to Ms. Kelly as a liar, cast doubt on the credibility of the mayor of Hoboken, who accused the Christie administration of political intimidation, and slipped into lawyerly exhortations to the ‘ladies and gentlemen’ sitting before him.”

While Creating Another Story

On May 1, 2015, Wildstein agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the government’s prosecution of Kelly and Port Authority deputy executive director William Baroni, Jr., both of whom were indicted. On May 27, lawyers for Kelly and Baroni sought court permission to issue subpoenas to Gibson Dunn for any notes, transcripts, and records that the firm had in connection with its investigation and report. Over Gibson Dunn’s objection, the court granted the motion.

After the subpoenas went out, Gibson Dunn objected again. It also responded that no such notes or recordings existed — none — and moved to quash the subpoenas as moot.

Defendants’ exasperated lawyers complained, “Gibson Dunn claims that it billed New Jersey taxpayers nearly $10 million but not a single lawyer took a single note during 75 interviews in the most high-profile political case in recent years.” (The court noted that the actual amount billed seemed to be about $8 million.)

The Court Was Not Amused

On December 16, 2015, Judge Susan Wigenton — a George W. Bush appointee — sympathized with the defendants’ frustration. She also explained what troubled her about Gibson Dunn’s position.

“Attorneys are trained to scrupulously document information when conducting internal investigations, including taking and preserving contemporaneous notes of witness interviews,” the court wrote in a ten-page opinion. “In the past, Gibson Dunn has done exactly that.”

But not for Bridgegate. Judge Wigenton chided the firm for “intentionally changing its approach in this investigation.” In particular, the affidavit of Gibson Dunn partner Alexander Southwell confirmed, “[W[itness interviews were summarized electronically by one attorney and then edited electronically into a single electronic file.”

The judge described the significance of that technique: “The practical effect of this unorthodox approach was to assure that contemporaneous notes of the witness interviews and draft summaries would not be preserved. Rather, they would be overwritten during the creation of the revised and edited final summary.”

Noting that the firm didn’t delete or shred documents, the judge observed that “the process of overwriting their witness notes and drafts of the summaries had the same effect.”

“This was a clever tactic,” Judge Wigenton continued, “but when public investigations are involved, straightforward lawyering is superior to calculated strategy. The taxpayers of the State of New Jersey paid Gibson Dunn millions of dollars to conduct a transparent and thorough investigation. What they got instead was opacity and gamesmanship.”

Gibson Dunn argued that defendants’ underlying motion was a “fishing expedition” and “a waste of time and judicial resources.” Defendants were “targeting a law firm’s work product, already knowing that most of what they seek does not exist…”

Nevertheless, what the court characterized as gamesmanship worked. The firm had no documents to produce, so the court granted Gibson Dunn’s motion to quash.

One More Thing…

The latest twist in the Bridgegate tale involves Debra Wong Yang, whom President George W. Bush appointed as U.S. attorney for the central district of California in 2002. In November 2006, Yang left the bench to become a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. The firm’s website notes that she works out of the Los Angeles office and has served as a member of the firm’s executive and management committees.

In a glowing introduction of Governor Christie as the keynote speaker at an event on June 9, 2011, Yang described him as her “very good friend” whom she had “known for ten years” — going all the way back to their time together as federal prosecutors. She said Christie was “the real deal” and “doing a remarkable job as governor.”

When Christie took the stage, he described how their families once vacationed together at the game ranch of a fellow U.S. attorney in Texas. “We are good and dear friends,” Christie said of Yang.

Fast-forward to Bridgegate

Here’s a summary of interesting events that followed:

—  According to the The New York Times’ review of Gibson Dunn billing records, two days after Christie hired the firm to investigate Bridgegate in January 2014, “Debra Wong Yang, a Gibson Dunn partner in California and a personal friend of of Mr. Christie’s, spent time in ‘meeting with client’ – Mr. Christie and his top lawyer in the governor’s office.”

— Gibson Dunn’s army of former federal prosecutors — including Yang — departed from the usual documentation process so that when the firm completed the investigation, no notes, transcripts or recordings of interviews existed beyond the final summaries provided to federal and state investigators.

— After Gibson Dunn’s report exonerated Christie, the firm continued working at taxpayer expense. According to the Times, it billed the state of New Jersey a total of $8 million from January 2014 through August 2015 “for the continuing defense of the governor.”

— Wholly apart from the dispute over what turned out to be Gibson Dunn’s non-existent internal documents relating to its investigation, on November 11, 2015 attorneys for Kelly and Baroni filed additional motions. They asked the court to direct the government to take a closer look at the adequacy of Gibson Dunn’s earlier document productions to the federal grand jury. Claiming that prosecutors should have challenged the firm’s disorganized and inadequate discovery responses, Baroni’s motion levels this accusation: “The government has given Gibson Dunn free reign to withhold and redact documents as that firm sees fit, as well as to produce documents in an abominable format.”

— Finally, according to the Timesin December 2015 Debra Wong Yang “co-hosted a $2,700-per-person fund-raiser in Los Angeles for Christie’s Republican presidential campaign.”

In an exclusive interview hours after Mastro released Gibson Dunn’s March 2014 report, the governor told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, “Sometimes people do inexplicably stupid things.”

Then again, sometimes things may not be as stupid as they first seem.