Still campaigning: Hillary Clinton looks into the audience during a speech in Florida last Thursday. (AP photo)
WASHINGTON: The US Attorney General has asked senior staff to recommend whether to appoint a special counsel to look into Clinton Foundation dealings and an Obama-era uranium deal.
A statement responding to concerns from Republican lawmakers and issued in the name of A-G Jeff Sessions said he is leaving open the possibility.
The department said in a letter to the House Judiciary Committee Monday that Sessions had directed senior federal prosecutors to “evaluate certain issues” raised in recent weeks by members of Congress, which include allegations that the Clinton Foundation benefited from a years-old uranium transaction involving a Russian-backed company.
President Donald Trump himself has repeatedly used social media to urge the Justice Department to investigate the deal, including in a series of Twitter posts this month in which he lamented not having more direct influence over the affairs of the law enforcement agency.
The prosecutors will report to Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and recommend whether any new investigations should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require additional resources and whether it might be necessary to appoint a special counsel to oversee a probe, according to a letter the Judiciary Committee’s Republican chairman, Representative Robert Goodlatte.
Any appointment of a new special counsel, particularly in response to calls from members of Congress or from Trump himself, is likely to lead to criticism complaints about an undue political influence on a department that is meant to function outside of any partisan sway or demand.
Though the Justice Department falls within the executive branch, and its priorities are historically in line with those of the president, the White House is not supposed to influence the decisions of prosecutors on any particular cases.
The Justice Department sought to address those concerns in its letter, with Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd saying that the department “will never evaluate any matter except on the facts and the law.”
“Professionalism, integrity and public confidence in the department’s work is critical for us, and no priority is higher,” he added.
Nonetheless, the action follows a series of critical public statements by Trump that observers said blurred the bright line between the White House and the Justice Department.
In recent weeks, he has repeatedly weighed in on Twitter on Justice Department business to call for investigations of Democrats and has challenged Sessions to be more aggressive in going after his political opponents, expressing particular support for investigating the Clinton Foundation. He has also suggested at times that Sessions’ job could be in jeopardy.
“Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems…” Trump tweeted earlier this month.
Boyd’s letter did not say what specific steps might be taken by the Justice Department to address the lawmakers’ concerns, or whether any of the matters Republicans have seized on might already be under investigation by federal authorities.
Sessions said at his January confirmation hearing that he would recuse himself from any investigations involving Clinton given his role as a vocal campaign surrogate to Trump.
He similarly recused himself from a separate investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, and in May, the Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead that probe.
House Republicans in recent weeks have launched their own probes into the Obama administration and Clinton’s emails.
Some lawmakers have specifically said they want to know more about whether President Barack Obama’s Justice Department had been investigating the purchase of American uranium mines by a Russian-backed company in 2010.
The agreement was reached while Clinton led the State Department and some investors in the company had relationships with former President Bill Clinton and donated large sums to the Clinton Foundation.
The letter comes one day before Sessions is to appear before the Judiciary panel for a Justice Department oversight hearing. Democrats on the committee have already signalled that they intend to press Sessions on his knowledge of contacts between Russians and aides to the Trump campaign.