President Trump has openly expressed his disappointment in Sessions and what he views as the attorney general needlessly recusing himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election, which paved the way for the special counsel investigation that is in part probing the Trump campaign.Conservative media has started to join in, with Fox News anchors, analysts and pundits cutting loose on Sessions with stinging and increasingly personal attacks.
GOP lawmakers and conservative operatives say a range of activities are ripe for investigation, from reports that the Clinton campaign had inappropriate power over the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the primaries to allegations about the sale of a uranium mining company to a Russian state-owned firm.
They believe Sessions has everything he needs to start dropping indictments on Clinton and her inner circle, and they’re increasingly frustrated by his failure to do so.
“Resign if you won’t do the job,” said conservative lawyer Larry Klayman, whose group, FreedomWatch, is suing to remove Robert Mueller from his position as the Justice Department special counsel investigating Trump’s campaign and Russia. “Sessions lasted this long because he’s very personable, and you want to believe the guy. But he just doesn’t have the guts for this.”
An administration official pushed back on that the criticism, arguing that the Justice Department doesn’t publicize or leak its investigations and so those criticizing Sessions have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes.
“The fact that the Justice Department hasn’t come out and confirmed an investigation or talked about one publicly shouldn’t be interpreted in any way that the investigation does or does not exist,” the official said. “It’s only a confirmation that this Justice Department doesn’t look for snappy headlines or leak under pressure.”
Independent legal experts say the attorney general is in a tough spot.
There is roiling anger on the right at Mueller’s investigation, prompting new demands that Sessions open probes into Democrats as well.
But special counsel investigations are exceedingly rare — Mueller’s is only the second in history. They also require a specific set of circumstances to launch. Any new investigation is sure to be seen as a partisan response to growing pressure on Sessions from the White House and conservative media.
“It’s difficult, particularly when you’re the party in power, because you’ll come under criticism for using the Justice Department to damage a political opponent, in this case a former presidential candidate,” said Robert Ray, the former independent counsel during the Clinton administration’s Whitewater controversy.
That hasn’t stopped the cascade of critics from the right calling for Sessions to either investigate Democrats or resign.
Conservatives want probes into the Fusion GPS dossier, a memo of opposition research into Trump that was paid for in part by Democrats and which may have been used by the FBI as part the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia.
Some are also questioning whether campaign finance laws were violated by the Clinton campaign’s fundraising and management agreement with the DNC.
Many believe the investigation into Clinton’s server and email arrangement was botched by former FBI Director James Comey and deserves renewed scrutiny, along with the tarmac meeting between former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Bill Clinton, which took place before Comey cleared Hillary Clinton of criminal misconduct in the handling of her emails while secretary of State.
Apart from the campaign, there is frustration that Sessions has not taken up an investigation into IRS scrutiny of conservative groups’ tax-exempt status or new details that have emerged surrounding the Obama administration’s approval of the sale of Uranium One to a Russia-backed firm while Clinton was at the State Department.
“Many of us feel defrauded by Jeff Sessions,” said Ned Ryun, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and founder of the conservative group American Majority.
“He was a conservative stalwart in the Senate, but as attorney general he’s been deeply disappointing. After eight years of Democrats politicizing the Justice Department, there are countless investigations he could take up to restore the public’s trust and faith in the department. I have no idea why he hasn’t, but it’s best for him to resign sooner rather than later.”
Until recently, Sessions had been shielded from criticism in conservative media by the overwhelming anger directed at Mueller and his team.
That has changed in recent weeks, as prominent figures on Fox News have described Sessions as weak and in over his head.
On Monday, former Trump campaign aide Steve Cortes called Sessions a “terrible attorney general” in a Fox News appearance.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett said on Sean Hannity’s show that Sessions is “utterly ignorant of the law or gullible and naive to the facts.”
Earlier this month, Hannity reluctantly went on the attack.
“I’ve always liked Jeff Sessions, but I am now at the limit,” he said. “Where is he? What is he doing?”
Breitbart News and its chairman, Stephen Bannon — a Sessions admirer — have so far held their fire. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist in the White House, tried to get Sessions to run for president before Trump began to dominate the GOP primary field. It would likely take a betrayal on immigration to get him to turn Breitbart against him.
“Steve doesn’t blame Sessions for the special counsel, but he’s puzzled as to why there hasn’t been an investigation into the Democrats,” said one source with knowledge of Bannon’s thinking.
Sessions has tried to buy himself time. He held a press conference earlier this year to announce that the Justice Department would aggressively target criminal leakers — an effort the agency says has resulted in 27 investigations.
And earlier this month, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said in a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that he had instructed senior prosecutors to consider whether further investigations into Clinton — or potentially a second special counsel — are warranted.
A day later, Sessions appeared to throw cold water on that idea in an explosive exchange with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who has been pushing Goodlatte for a second special counsel. Jordan demanded to know what it would take to get Sessions to act.
“We will use the proper standards and that’s the only thing I can tell you, Mr. Jordan,” Sessions said. “You can have your idea, but sometimes we have to study what the facts are and to evaluate whether it meets the standards it requires.”
In the meantime, legal experts expect the pressure on Sessions will continue to come from every direction.
“Prosecution is not politics by another means. Justice has to stand and say no if there are efforts to politicize this,” said Ray, the Whitewater investigator. “Special counsels aren’t the solution to a political problem. They are judgments from career prosecutors, so the appropriate thing now is to wait for their recommendation.”