As the attorney general, Sessions plays a unique role in the Cabinet, because his job is not simply to serve the president but ensure that the president himself follows the law. Sessions said as much during his confirmation hearing in January.
“The office of the attorney general of the United States is not a political position, and anyone who holds it must have total fidelity to the laws and the Constitution of the United States,” Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “He or she must be willing to tell the president no if he overreaches. He or she cannot be a mere rubber stamp to any idea the president has.”
Trump’s admission that he had the Russia investigation in mind when he dismissed Comey, and reports that contemporaneous notes taken by Comey indicate an attempt by the president to shut down the investigation into Flynn, have prompted accusations that Trump engaged in obstruction of justice at worst, or at best improperly tried to influence a federal investigation.
"It's inappropriate for the president to have a conversation with the FBI director about any criminal investigation, let alone involving his campaign and his close associates," said a former high-ranking Justice Department official.
“It is Sessions who is ultimately responsible for guaranteeing DOJ’s independence,” said Matt Miller, a former spokesperson for the Justice Department under Obama. “If he had any suspicion the president was making this sort of inappropriate request, he needed to find out and make it clear to the president that this kind of interference was unacceptable.”
The events as recalled by Comey also raise other questions about the extent of Sessions’s knowledge of these events and his independence as attorney general. In March, Sessions recused himself from “any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States” after revelations that he misled the Senate about the extent of his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 campaign. Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, due to Sessions’s recusal.
But even after his recusal, Sessions went on to participate in Comey’s removal, and in the selection of his potential replacement. Sessions reportedly recommended that Trump replace Comey, a Republican with a reputation for independence, with Texas Senator John Cornyn, the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate. No one, let alone a party leader, has ever gone directly from elected office to serve as FBI director.
On Wednesday, 11 Senate Democrats signed a letter urging the Department of Justice’s inspector general to open an investigation into whether Sessions violated his recusal pledge by participating in Comey’s firing. The letter states that “the president’s recent admission that Comey was fired, at least in part, due to the Russia investigation only raises further question about the role of the Attorney General in his termination, his willingness to provide cover for a political decision, and both his and the Department of Justice’s ability to perform an independent investigation.”