Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is considering whether to investigate President Donald Trumpâs political enemies, as the president has repeatedly and publicly demanded, the former senator from Alabama told lawmakers this morning at a congressional hearing.
âI’ve directed senior federal prosecutors to make recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be open, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources and whether any matters under consideration may merit the appointment of a special counsel,â SessionsÂ testifiedÂ before the House Judiciary Committee this morning.
According to aÂ letterÂ the Justice Department sent the committee yesterday, the issues the prosecutors are examining include âthe sale of Uranium Oneâ and âalleged unlawful dealings related to the Clinton Foundation.â
âI don’t want to be Chicken Little, but, you know what, this is what happens in authoritarian countries like Turkey and Russia, that when a party takes power, they start criminally investigating their opponents,â CNN legal analyst Jeffrey ToobinÂ warnedÂ this morning. Referencing the letterâs mention of Uranium One, he added, âThis is a question about whether Fox News runs the Justice Department.â
Other analystsÂ haveÂ suggestedÂ that Sessions isnât trying to take a cudgel to the rule of law in this country, but merely trying to assuage Republican lawmakers who are eager to investigate Clinton. Under this line of thinking, Sessions is just telling members of Congress that he is listening to their concerns, but the result will be a recommendation from prosecutors not to move forward with an investigation. Sessions seemed to lean in that direction later in his testimony, suggesting thereÂ may not be a “factual basis”Â to appoint a special counsel.
That’sÂ best case scenario — the attorney general isnât seriously contemplating a big step toward a banana republic, just a small one to get members of his party who are drunk on Foxâs coverage to back off. That, in and of itself, âis hardly normal,â as CNN legal analyst Steve VladeckÂ wrote. But it’s better than a countryÂ teetering downÂ a pathÂ well-trodÂ byÂ autocrats throughout history.
Either way, the president has spent months using public statements and his Twitter feed to urge prosecutors to target former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her allies. The attorney general is publicly taking action that could lead to such prosecutions. And, as Toobin pointed out, Fox has played a crucial role in making this day possible.
Sean Hannity, the Fox host with the largest audience in cable news, said as much last night on his program. âFinally,â HannityÂ exultedÂ in describing the contents of the DOJ letter. âSessions is â¦ leaving the door open for the appointment of a special counsel, what we have been calling for.â
Breitbart chief executive Steve Bannon and one of his employees, the discredited author Peter Schweizer, first launched the Uranium OneÂ conspiracy theoryÂ in 2015. Its thesis is that Clinton played a âcentral roleâ in the federal governmentâs approval of the Russian nuclear energy agencyâs purchase of the company in 2010, when she was secretary of state, because her husband and the Clinton Foundation were bribed with payments from people linked to the deal. This is nonsense for many reasons, notably that thereâs actually no evidence Clinton played any role at all in the approval process.
But Uranium One has become the talisman Hannity has used to ward off special counsel Robert Muellerâs investigation into Trumpâs associates and their ties to Russia. In Hannityâs telling,Â repeated over and over againÂ this summer, the Uranium One sale demonstrates that Clinton is the one guilty of âreal collusionâ with Russia as well asÂ aÂ variety of federal crimesÂ that demand an investigation. Heâs alsoÂ frequently usedÂ the case to demand Muellerâs resignation.
Hannity is leading the way, but heâs not alone at Fox. A new and quickly debunked report about Uranium One published inÂ The HillÂ last monthÂ triggered nearly 12 hoursÂ of coverage on the network in three weeks, driving discussions on nearly every Fox program, according to aÂ Media MattersÂ study.
One of our more curious findings in that study was thatÂ Justice with Jeanine Pirro, a weekly hourlong show that aired only three times in the period reviewed, carried the fifth-most coverage on the network, aÂ whopping 52 minutesÂ of Uranium One discussion.
âStarting Monday, this has to happen,â PirroÂ saidÂ on the October 28 edition of her Saturday night show. âSpecial counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller must be fired immediately. â¦ The special counsel’s office must be shut down. â¦ Jeff Sessions must appoint someone to investigate the uranium deal. â¦ And if he doesn’t do it, it’s time for Sessions to go.â
Four days later,Â The New York TimesÂ reported, she was invited to the White House and made the same argument directly to the president:
One commentator in particular, the Fox News host Jeanine Pirro â who is a friend of Mr. Trumpâs and whose show he rarely misses â has aggressively denounced Mr. Sessions as weak for not investigating the uranium deal. In addition to making scathing critiques on her show, Ms. Pirro â who had interviewed to be the deputy attorney general, according to three transition officials â recently met with the president to excoriate the attorney general.
In an Oval Office meeting on Nov. 1, Ms. Pirro said that a special counsel needed to be appointed, according to two people briefed on the discussion.
Pirro isnât the only one at Fox pushing the Uranium One story who has the ear of the president. Trump reportedlyÂ frequently callsÂ Hannity after his show ends, and thereâs evidence the Fox host has driven federal policy with his advice before. And the president regularlyÂ tweets alongÂ with the Fox morning showÂ Fox & Friends, which alsoÂ championsÂ the conspiracy theory.
Foxâs coverage already seems to haveÂ encouraged congressional RepublicansÂ to launch a Uranium One probe. And now the attorney general is taking his own steps, uncertain as their goal may be.
At best, Fox is running Congress. At worse, as Toobin suggests, the networkâs in charge of the Justice Department.
Header image byÂ Sarah Wasko / Media Matters