In a recent TV interview, Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered advice for Special Counsel Robert Mueller on hiring practices and the tempo of the Trump-Russia probe, despite indications from Sessions’ top aide earlier this year that the attorney general would not field such media inquiries because of his recusal.
Sessions appeared for over eight minutes Friday on "Fox and Friends," a morning television program repeatedly praised by President Donald Trump, mostly to tout the implementation of Trump’s travel ban executive order and progress on other measures aimed at cracking down on crimes committed by immigrants.
However, the latter portion of the interview was devoted to the ongoing investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race and any potential collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. That probe is being conducted by former FBI Director Mueller, who was given a special counsel appointment in May by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
The Fox morning hosts asked Sessions a series of questions about Mueller’s independence and alleged conflicts of interest on the part of his aides.
Sessions seemed a bit uncomfortable with the line of questioning, but responded to the queries anyway.
Asserting that Mueller and fired FBI Director James Comey are "very good friends," Fox host Ainsley Earhardt noted that Trump had called the relationship "bothersome." She then asked Sessions if he shared that view, given that examining Comey’s firing appears to be part of the probe.
"Well, we need to have a — clear the air on this and let the system work its will. That’s all that can be done at this point. And we expect full integrity and good work from every part — every person involved in this investigation," the attorney general said.
Fox’s Brian Kilmeade then asked if Sessions was troubled that Mueller has hired lawyers who have ties to Democratic politics or — as is the case with one Mueller deputy — previous legal work for the Clinton Foundation.
"Well, Mr. Mueller, is entitled, lawfully, I guess at this point, to hire who he desires, but I think he should look for people who have strength and credibility by all people," Sessions responded.
At that point, Fox’s Steve Doocy chimed in, asking the attorney general if he has "full confidence" in Mueller.
"Mr. Mueller is someone I’ve known for a long time and I’ve had confidence in him over the years, yes," Sessions said.
"Over the years — but what about right now?" Doocy replied.
"Well, I feel confident what he’ll do. That’s all I can say to you about that. The man has a good reputation and knows his business. Hopefully, we can move forward and see this matter come to an end sooner, rather than later," Sessions added. He did not elaborate on just what he is confident Mueller will do.
The comments were curious because a March 2 memo from Sessions’ chief of staff, Jody Hunt, said the attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from all investigations related to the 2016 presidential race extended to media inquiries on that topic.
"The Attorney General’s recusal is not only with respect to such investigations, if any, but also extends to Department responses to Congressional and media inquiries related to any such investigations," Hunt wrote in an email to top Justice officials, including Comey.
Some ethics experts said Sessions should not be opining publicly about Mueller’s investigation.
"He should not be doing this," said Richard Painter, a former White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush and now a law professor at the University of Minnesota and on the board of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
"Perhaps the [Hunt] memo should have been sent to Sessions as well, since his response to Fox and Friends seems to indicate that Sessions is not aware that his recusal extends to media statements about the Russia investigation," said Washington University law professor Kathleen Clark. "I believe that the White House and its allies are attempting to undermine Mueller’s stellar reputation and his credibility. Sessions should not participate in this type of attempt to undermine Mueller’s investigation."
However, another prominent expert said Sessions answers were bland enough that they were not worrisome.
"The interview doesn’t trouble me. His answers are very general, not focused on the details or specifics of Mueller’s activities," said New York University law professor Stephen Gillers.
Spokespeople for Sessions did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment on Sessions’ remarks.