President Trump said Thursday that he had directed newly installed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate alleged leaks of classified information, citing recent published accounts of his private telephone calls with world leaders as well as the public airing of sensitive deliberations that led to the firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump’s disclosure, in the midst of a meandering and combative White House news conference, immediately revived concerns previously voiced by Democratic lawmakers that Sessions could not assert his independence as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Shumer, D-N.Y., has called on Sessions to recuse himself from the ongoing investigation into contacts between Trump associates and Russian government officials, while California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, on Thursday asked that Sessions limit contacts between the White House and the Justice Department.
“We ask that you comply with longstanding Justice Department policy, limiting communications between the White House and Justice Department, particularly with respect to criminal or civil enforcement matters,’’ Feinstein said in a letter to the attorney general that was co-signed by the other Democratic Judiciary panel members.
“We ask that you circulate a memorandum to the heads of department components, the United States attorneys offices, and the White House that makes clear the policy the Department of Justice will implement.’’
The Justice Department declined to comment Thursday on Trump's remarks and the president's contacts with the new attorney general.
"I actually called the Justice Department to look into the leaks,'' Trump said Thursday. "These are criminal leaks.''
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have bombarded Justice with calls for inquiries into alleged disclosures of classified information, primarily related to the ongoing federal inquiry into communications between Trump associates and Russian government officials during the past year.
Earlier this week, aspects of that inquiry splashed into the public domain when it was revealed that acting Attorney General Sally Yates last month alerted the White House counsel that, contrary to public denials by top Trump administration officials, intercepted pre-inaugural communications between Flynn and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. included discussions of Russian sanctions imposed by the Obama administration.
Yates' warning came shortly after FBI agents interviewed Flynn about his discussions with the ambassador.
In that interview, Flynn's responses were described Thursday by a U.S. official familiar with the matter as nuanced and not entirely forthcoming. Making false statements to the FBI is a felony, but the official — who is not authorized to publicly discuss the matter — said Flynn's statements did not appear to rise to the level of warranting criminal charges.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Flynn denied discussing sanctions in the FBI interview.
Trump, meanwhile, claimed that he did not direct Flynn to raise the issue of sanctions in the call with the ambassador. But he went on to say that he found nothing wrong with the former national security adviser's actions.
"Mike was doing his job,'' Trump said Thursday.
He said Flynn was dismissed for misleading Vice President Pence about his discussions with the ambassador.
At least for now, the person who likely will have the last word on Flynn's possible legal exposure and the course of the ongoing Russian inquiry is Sessions.
And an aide to the former Alabama senator said the attorney general is unaware of any information that would prompt his recusal from overseeing the ongoing investigation.