In January, during the hearings to consider Donald Trump’s nomination of then Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, Senator Mike Lee, the Republican of Utah, noted that whoever held that office had a good deal of “flexibility” on the matter of special prosecutors. What guidelines would Sessions follow, Lee asked, in responding to calls to appoint one? As it happens, calls of that sort have been heard loudly since Wednesday, in the wake of President Trump’s firing of the F.B.I. director, James Comey. Sessions likely had a different set of circumstance in mind back in January, although even then there were indications—hacking, Russian contacts, financial conflicts, nepotism—of the legal morass to come. Sessions ought to have known that Lee’s question was not entirely hypothetical.
“It is a matter that has created controversy over the years,” Sessions told Lee. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the Attorney General just to willy-nilly create special prosecutors. History has not shown that has always been a smart thing to do.” But there were times, Sessions conceded, when a matter arose requiring objectivity, or at least “the absolute appearance of objectivity,” to an extent that made a special prosecutor appropriate. He had one particular time in mind. “Attorney General Lynch, for example, did not appoint a special prosecutor on the Clinton matter. I did criticize that. I was a politician. We had a campaign on. I didn’t research the law in depth. Just the reaction, as a senator, of concern.”