Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday rebuffed — at least for now — a call from Republican leaders to appoint a second special counsel to look into the FBI's handling of its most high-profile probes and announced that he has asked the U.S. attorney in Utah to spearhead a broad review.
Sessions made the revelation in a letter to three key GOP leaders in the House and Senate who have called on him to appoint a second special counsel, noting that Justice Department regulations call for such appointments only in "extraordinary circumstances" and that he would need to conclude "the public interest would be served by removing a large degree of responsibility for the matter from the Department of Justice."
He asserted that the department previously has tackled high-profile and resource-intensive probes and revealed he had named U.S. Attorney John Huber to lead a review of the topics that the legislators had requested he explore. Those topics include aspects of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and several matters related to Hillary Clinton and her family's foundation.
"I am confident that Mr. Huber's review will include a full, complete, and objective evaluation of these matters in a manner that is consistent with the law and the facts," Sessions wrote. "I receive regular updates from Mr. Huber and upon the conclusion of his review, will receive his recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation require further resources, or whether any merit the appointment of a Special Counsel."
Sessions in November revealed to GOP legislators that he had directed senior federal prosecutors to look into matters they wanted probed, and he said in an interview with Fox News this month that the review was being led by a person outside Washington. Sessions, though, had not revealed the name of that person, and his public comments have done little to quiet the cries for a second special counsel.
Sessions' letter was addressed to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., — each of whom has called on him to appoint a second special counsel.
The lawmakers have raised numerous concerns — including the handling of the Clinton email investigation, alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation, the sale of a uranium company to Russia and what some conservatives view as inappropriate surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Democrats view their concerns as unfounded and part of a possible ploy to distract from the work of special counsel Robert Mueller III, whom Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed to look into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz already has been probing aspects of the Clinton email case, and he announced Wednesday that he would review the surveillance of Page. Conservatives charge the surveillance was inappropriate and that to obtain the warrant that authorized it, the FBI used information from a former British intelligence officer who had been hired by an opposition research firm working for Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
Democrats argue that the warrant was obtained legally and with the approval of judges, who were relying on information far beyond the material provided by Christopher Steele, the intelligence officer.
Lawmakers reiterated their calls for a second special counsel even after Horowitz's announcement, noting that the inspector general's authority is limited in some respects. They did the same after Sessions' Thursday announcement, although they said it was a welcome step.
"We are encouraged that Attorney General Sessions has designated U.S. Attorney John W. Huber to investigate the actions of the Department of Justice and FBI in 2016 and 2017. While we continue to believe the appointment of a second Special Counsel is necessary, this is a step in the right direction," Goodlatte and Gowdy said in a statement.
President Trump previously had been critical of Sessions for relying merely on the inspector general to look into his party's concerns, particularly with respect to Page.
"Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn't the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!" Trump wrote on Twitter last month, referring to former FBI director James Comey.
In his letter, Sessions seemed to defend the inspector general, noting that he had "broad discretion and significant investigative powers" and that he could develop cases that he could refer elsewhere for prosecution or make his findings public — which regular criminal prosecutors might not be able to do.
Huber's appointment might allay some. Grassley, in a March 15 letter, wrote that if Sessions felt Justice Department regulations did not allow him to appoint a second special counsel, he should instead designate a "disinterested U.S. attorney."
Mueller, too, has been functioning much like a U.S. attorney's office, although he enjoys some special protections that Huber would not have. For example, the regulation that governs his appointment says he can be removed only by the attorney general for cause, and the attorney general must explain his removal to Congress.
Huber was first appointed as a U.S. attorney in Utah during the Obama administration, although Trump reappointed him last summer. Sessions wrote that he was working from outside Washington and in cooperation with Horowitz. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said of Huber's appointment: "Attorney General Sessions has picked the right man for the job."
It is not unheard of for sitting U.S. attorneys to be asked to handle high-profile, Washington-centric investigations, although it has been done in different ways. Under Obama, then-Attorney General Eric Holder tapped two U.S. attorneys — including Rosenstein when he served in the role in Maryland — to lead high-profile leak investigations, and Comey, when he was deputy attorney general, appointed then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald as a special counsel to look into who revealed the identity of a covert CIA officer.
The Washington Post's Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.