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Sessions won't take sides on GOP demands for Clinton probe

Attorney General Jeff Sessions seemed to throw some cold water Tuesday on Republicans clamoring for the Department of Justice to appoint a special counsel to investigate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) pressed Sessions on why it had taken the Justice Department months to hint, as it did Monday, at the prospect of considering a special counsel to probe years-old matters connected to Clinton.

Jordan said he thought evidence unearthed in the last year about how FBI decided against charging Clinton over her handling of classified information at the State Department appeared to warrant a special counsel, and he also raised questions about the FBI’s links to a disputed dossier of information about Donald Trump’s alleged Russia ties.

“‘Looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel,” Sessions responded.

A Department of Justice spokesman said Sessions was not taking sides on GOP lawmakers’ months-long call for a special counsel to investigate Clinton. “The Attorney General was clarifying the legal basis for appointing special counsel — not passing judgment on whether it applied in any specific investigation,” spokesman Ian Prior said.

And Sessions, too, later clarified his comments. “I did not mean to suggest I was talking a side one way or the other on that subject,” he said.

Still, the attorney general’s comments on the matter are significant because they won’t just be heard by lawmakers. Trump has badgered Sessions and the Department of Justice to launch further probes of Clinton, his rival in the 2016 election, and has lamented that DOJ has historically been independent of the president.

“I want you all to know that if a special counsel is required I, or I’m sure anyone else in the department that had the responsibility, would name one,” Sessions said.

Sessions, who has recused himself from any matters connected to Clinton or the 2016 presidential campaign, also told the committee it would be inappropriate for the president to direct him to target a political rival.

“I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced” by Trump, he said.

His comments came a day after the Justice Department released a letter hinting at the prospect of investigating matters connected to Clinton. In addition to raising questions about the FBI’s handling of the email probe, Trump allies have been clamoring for a new investigation of a 2010 deal that transferred some U.S. uranium production capacity to a company with Kremlin links. The deal was approved by a multi-agency consortium that included the State Department, then led by Clinton.

Clinton has dismissed the claims as largely debunked, and her allies say the recent resurrection of the years-old allegations are a sign that inquiries into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia are spooking the White House.

The DOJ letter released Monday said Sessions had asked senior prosecutors to look into the allegations, including “whether any matters merit the appointment of a Special Counsel.”

Sessions said Tuesday the DOJ shouldn’t help the president get back at rivals. “I would say the Department of Justice can never be used to retaliate politically against opponents, and that would be wrong,” he said under questioning from Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.).

Sessions promised that DOJ would conduct investigations “without political influence, and they will be done correctly and properly.”

Sessions — or, in the event of a recusal, the deputy attorney general — has a large amount of discretion when determining if an outside investigator is needed. He can go the same route his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, followed when he named former FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate any crimes connected to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Mueller has many of the same authorities, powers and oversight held by U.S. attorneys.

The attorney general has other alternatives, too, under DOJ rules.

President George W. Bush’s Attorney General Michael Mukasey in 2008, for example, appointed assistant U.S. attorney John Durham to investigate the CIA’s destruction of torture tapes; President Barack Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder a year later expanded on that mandate to investigate CIA torture itself. Holder in 2010 also tapped U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to examine whether defense lawyers at Guantanamo Bay had compromised the identities of covert CIA officers.

It’s not unusual for multiple independent counsels to be in operation investigating all manner of executive branch controversies. During the Bill Clinton administration, seven special counsels were up and running under a law that has since lapsed — including the Whitewater probe and separate investigations into his agriculture, commerce, interior, labor and housing and urban development secretaries.

President Ronald Reagan faced eight different independent counsel investigations over his two terms, including the Iran-Contra affair, which examined the actions of then-Lt. Col. Oliver North and other senior administration officials accused of selling arms to Iran and diverting profits to right-wing rebels in Nicaragua.

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