Watchdog Seeks Paper Trail Behind Sessions Recusal

(AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – A government watchdog claimed in federal court Tuesday that the Justice Department is waffling on the disclosure of records about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from matters related to the 2016 presidential campaign.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also called CREW, said it filed the complaint because the DOJ went silent after agreeing to expedite the watchdog’s initial Freedom of Information Act request.

The group had asked the DOJ for three categories of records: those containing advice or recommendations about whether Sessions should recuse himself from campaign-related matters, his calendars from Feb. 27 through March 3, and all records effectuating his recusal.

“The requested records likely will contribute to public understanding of the motivation behind the attorney general’s recusal decision, the extent to which it was guided by advice from his staff, and the extent to which it was influenced by the public revelation he had not testified fully and truthfully before Congress during his confirmation hearing,” according to the six-page complaint, filed Tuesday in Washington D.C., federal court.

Sessions recused himself from election-related matters less than 24 hours after the Washington Post reported on March 1 that he had failed to disclose two meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak that occurred during the campaign. One took place at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and the other in his Senate office.

Sessions had testified on Jan. 10 during his confirmation hearing for attorney general that he had not communicated with the Russians as a member of President Donald Trump’s campaign team.

As noted in the lawsuit, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked Sessions to respond in writing to follow-up questions, including whether he had “been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day.”

Sessions again answered, “No.”

During a March 2 press conference, Sessions said he based his decision to step aside from investigations into the election on advice his staff gave him during a meeting three days earlier, on Feb. 27.

According to CREW attorney Anne Weismann, the FOIA request partially intended to test that claim.

“I think the clear impression he tried to convey at his press conference, although he never brought up specifically that [Washington Post] story, was that this was a decision that he was planning to make in the normal course of business, and he was planning to make it on that day,” Weismann said in a phone interview.

“So that is the first proposition we are trying to test, because we asked for his calendar for five days in that week to see whether in fact, as he stated at his press conference, this meeting that they had on that day to make that decision was in fact a long-scheduled meeting,” she added.

The government watchdog said it requested expedited processing of its FOIA request given the “widespread and exceptional media interest” in the topic, and possible questions of government integrity that could impact public confidence.

The DOJ granted the request on March 15, and verbally informed the group that it located the calendars but has yet to release them, according to the complaint.

In Weismann’s experience, the time it takes a federal agency to actually disclose records after granting expedited processing varies.

“In this case though – I mean they have a very discreet, small number of documents,” she said. “So clearly the volume doesn’t justify the delay.”

Calling it “remarkable” that CREW has yet to receive a single calendar page, Weismann said she is concerned about the DOJ’s “refusal to disclose.”

“I mean the question I have to ask,” she said, “is it covering up something that the attorney general would prefer not get out there, if in fact his calendars were to show that this meeting had not been scheduled?”

The DOJ declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Weismann said she hopes the lawsuit will prompt a response from the agency.

“I think this is a big deal,” Weismann said. “And we deserve to know more about it.”

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