Sessions Letter Shows DOJ Acted on Trump’s Authoritarian Demand to Investigate Clinton

(Photo: Gage Skidmore)

American Oversight has uncovered the signed directive from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructing a federal prosecutor to carry out President Trump’s authoritarian demand to investigate Hillary Clinton.

The document, obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation by American Oversight, is a formal, November 2017 letter from Sessions to U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber and has never before been released to the public. In a sworn declaration filed in November 2018 in response to American Oversight’s lawsuit, the Justice Department had insisted that no written directive existed and that all guidance to Huber had been delivered verbally.

Trump has repeatedly tweeted demands for DOJ to investigate Clinton. Throughout the 2016 presidential general election campaign and at multiple rallies after taking office, Trump and his supporters have used the rallying cry “Lock her up” to call for the prosecution of Clinton.

“’Lock her up’ was wrong at campaign rallies, and it’s even worse coming from the Department of Justice,” said Austin Evers, American Oversight executive director. “Even after this long, it’s still deeply shocking to see the black-and-white proof that Jeff Sessions caved to President Trump’s worst authoritarian impulses and ordered a wide-ranging investigation of his political opponents based on demands from Congress instead of the facts and the law.”

On November 13, 2017, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote to former House Judiciary Committee Chair Robert Goodlatte informing him that Sessions had directed “senior federal prosecutors” to evaluate issues the congressman had raised in previous letters. Goodlatte had written to Sessions calling for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate Clinton, the Uranium One sale, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s handling of the inquiry into Clinton’s use of a private email server.

But until now, the full scope of Huber’s mandate had not been disclosed. The new documents obtained by American Oversight show that on November 22, 2017, Sessions wrote to Huber and directed him to review the matters referenced in Boyd’s letter, and to make recommendations about whether to open new investigations or potentially even appoint a second special counsel.

The documents also show that former Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who was then serving as Sessions’ chief of staff, personally sent the letter to Huber as an attachment to an email that read simply, “As we discussed. MW.”

DOJ Claimed No Written Directives Existed

After Boyd’s letter to Goodlatte became public in November 2017, American Oversight submitted FOIA requests with DOJ, seeking the release of any directives or guidance given to the “federal prosecutors” mentioned in the letter. Three months later, after DOJ failed to provide the requested records, American Oversight sued.

In November 2018, DOJ filed a motion for summary judgment in the ongoing litigation, asserting that no records of any written directives existed. In support of that motion, DOJ submitted a sworn declaration claiming that officials with direct knowledge of the situation — including both Huber and Whitaker — had stated there were no written directives and that all instructions to Huber had been delivered orally in meetings or small discussions.

On February 28, 2019 — two days before Whitaker was scheduled to leave DOJ — the department reversed course and informed the court that it had located a record responsive to American Oversight’s request for written directives.

The letter from Sessions, and the email from Whitaker to Huber transmitting it, directly contradict DOJ’s prior sworn declaration, including information Whitaker had provided in response to the declarant’s inquiries.

“It strains credulity to believe that the Justice Department didn’t know about this letter when they swore under penalty of perjury that it didn’t exist — you don’t exactly forget about a formal directive to investigate Hillary Clinton signed by Jeff Sessions,” said Evers. “The fact that they only ‘found’ it the same week Matthew Whitaker was heading for the exit makes it hard to see DOJ’s previous denial as anything but a deliberate attempt to conceal the extent to which President Trump’s authoritarian demands were being put into action.”

American Oversight is continuing to seek answers about DOJ’s actions in support of Trump’s unprecedented demands to investigate his perceived political rivals. The case remains in active litigation and we are considering our options to bring the DOJ’s misstatements to the court’s attention and to uncover how they were made in the first place. We’ve also sent multiple follow-up FOIAs to DOJ seeking records about Huber’s investigation.

View the Sessions directive to Huber obtained by American Oversight below: