Sessions Won’t Promise Special Counsel for Uranium One

Attorney general frustrates some fellow Republicans during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 14 Nov 2017 at 7:55 PM

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday pledged to act properly on a request by some members of Congress for a special counsel to investigate a Russian company’s U.S. uranium purchase, but he stopped short of promising to appoint one.

Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee a day after news reports that he had ordered the Justice Department to look into whether a special counsel is needed, Sessions frustrated some Republicans on the panel.

"What's it going to take to get a special counsel?" asked Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of 20 representatives to send a letter to the Justice Department asking for an independent counsel. The purpose would be to investigate whether top officials in then-President Barack Obama's administration knew about bribery allegations surrounding the acquisition of Uranium One by the subsidiary of a Russian energy firm.

The deal gave the Russian company a controlling interest in a fifth of U.S. uranium reserves.

In response to Jordan, Sessions said: "It would take a factual basis that meets the standards of the appointment of a special counsel."

Related: Sessions on Russia Contacts: 'I Have Always Told the Truth'

Jordan asked if the FBI paid former British spy Christopher Steele, who produced a so-called dossier of salacious allegations about blackmail material Russia supposedly had on President Donald Trump. Jordan asked if the Department Justice during the Obama administration used the dossier to get a warrant for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.

"And it sure looks like the FBI was paying the author of that document, and it sure looks like a major political party was working with the federal government to then turn an opposition research document — the equivalent of a National Enquirer story — take that document to a FISA court so that they could then get a warrant to spy on Americans associated with President Trump," he said. "That's what it looks like."

Sessions said questions about the dossier should be asked of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. He said the decision about whether to appoint a second special counsel to investigate the Uranium One deal and large donations made to the Clinton Foundation would be made according to longstanding rules.

"I would say 'looks like' is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel," he said.

Jordan appeared unhappy with that answer. He also expressed dissatisfaction with the conduct of former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired in March.

"Well, Mr. Comey is no longer the director of the FBI."

Said Jordan: "Thank goodness."

"There are significant concerns that the partisanship of the FBI and the Department [of Justice] has weakened the ability of each to act objectively."

Sessions, under questioning by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), reiterated previous comments that Comey overstepped his authority in announcing that charges would not be brought against 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for her mishandling of classified emails as secretary of state.

"I do agree with you, congressman, that Mr. Comey talked more than he should," he said. "And he had no power, right or justification in announcing the conclusions of a criminal investigation. He was the investigator, not the prosecutor."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said he believes the FBI and the Justice Department had been tarnished by the leadership during the Obama administration.

"There are significant concerns that the partisanship of the FBI and the department has weakened the ability of each to act objectively," he said.

Rep. Trey Gowdy called out Democratic hypocrisy for grilling Sessions about Trump's public comments encouraging the Justice Department to investigate Clinton while standing silent when Obama put his thumb on the scale during the email investigation.

"My motivation is a love for that department and a love for the concept of blind justice that doesn't care whether it's an even-numbered year or an odd-numbered year," he said.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said he believes that Comey allowed himself to be influenced by Obama's comments that Clinton had no intent to violate the law — even though the statute governing mishandling classified material does not require intent.

Related: Special Counsel May Be Appointed to Investigate Clintons and Uranium One Deal

"It seems as though he latched on to the statements made by President Obama, and he more or less implied and implemented it into an interpretation of the statute that word 'intent' as if it were a condition before there could be any kind of prosecution for a violation of" the statute, he said.

Democrats on the panel tried to keep the focus of the hearing on the attorney general's prior statements related to Trump campaign contacts with Russians. They dismissed questions over Uranium One and the Steele dossier as a partisan witch hunt.

"The fact that this letter was sent through the majority without the customary and appropriate notice to me indicates that the charge given to the department officials to evaluate this issue has political motivations," said the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.

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