The disbelief likely was driven by two overriding factors: (1) Trump's firing of Comey smacks of Richard Nixon's Watergate-era firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox. That became known as "The Saturday Night Massacre," led to the release of White House tapes, and hastened Nixon's exit from the presidency. History tells us this might be the strongest indicator yet that Trump is headed for a fall; (2) Sessions had announced his recusal on all matters connected to the Trump-Russian investigation, which Comey was heading. (Note: Sessions also had recused himself from any matters related to the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, and Comey's clumsy handling of that matter is the reason a Sessions deputy gave for the firing.) So how did Sessions think it was his duty to recommend Comey be fired?
This kind of behavior is not new for Jeff Sessions, and it dates to his time as U.S. attorney and attorney general in Alabama. Sessions has a history of taking underhanded steps to remove people he sees as threats. Knowing that history might help the public better understand how yesterday's drama came to unfold.
Perhaps the best example of Sessions' back-stabbing tendencies came in a mid-1990s case styled USX v. Tieco. The case started with USX (United States Steel) alleging that Tieco had engaged in a fraudulent billing scheme, with Tieco allegedly providing kickbacks to compromised USX employees. Tieco responded with a counterclaim, alleging civil-rights violations, conspiracy, and other wrongs. From an opinion in the matter:
[Tieco has] also filed a counterclaim against the plaintiffs, the Attorney General of the State of Alabama, and two others in the Office of the Attorney General ("AG"). In their counterclaim, the defendants allege civil rights violations and conspiracy . . . , violations of § 36-25-8 of the Code of Alabama of 1975 (regarding non-disclosure of confidential information by a public official) . . . , intentional interference with business relationships, negligence, wantonness, conversion, and conspiracy.
The attorney general in question was Jeff Sessions. The gist of Tieco's allegations against Sessions and others in his office involve a search warrant for the company's business records. From the court opinion:
The seizure by the AG's office included virtually all of the business records of these two defendants, as well as some of the records of another corporation, House of Threads, Inc.
Some of the records seized by the AG's office were later turned over to USX. After USX received these records, it filed this lawsuit in December 1995.
If that smells funny to you, Tieco executives had the same reaction. Here was the state's AG seizing the company's business records and then turning them over to USX so that firm could sue Tieco. No wonder Tieco included Sessions and others from the AG's office in its counterclaim.
The opinion referenced above was written by U.W. Clemon, the first black federal judge in Alabama history and a noted civil-rights lawyer before President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the federal bench. Sessions must have sensed he was in serious trouble because he took underhanded steps to get Clemon removed from the case. Here's how we explained it in a previous post:
At the time, a relatively new law firm had formed in Birmingham called Lehr Middlebrooks Price and Proctor. The last name in that lineup stood for R. David Proctor, now a federal judge handling our cases. The third name stood for Terry Price, who just happened to be Judge Clemon's nephew (the middle son of the judge's oldest sister).
Did Sessions and his chief investigator, Edward F. McFadden, hire Lehr Middlebrooks to defend them to create a conflict that would force Clemon off the case?
The answer to that question almost certainly is yes. In fact, hiring Terry Price and his firm to get Judge Clemon off cases -- supposedly to be replaced by a white, conservative, business-friendly judge -- became almost a sport in the Birmingham legal community. In fact, it became so blatant that The Wall Street Journal reported on the subject. From that article:
Court rulings say it's a breach of ethics to hire a lawyer "solely or primarily for the purpose of disqualifying the judge." Though deciphering motive is usually difficult, lawyers found to have engaged in such practices could face professional disciplinary proceedings.
So, courts found that hiring a certain lawyer to force Judge Clemon off cases was grossly unethical. And Jeff Sessions helped pioneer the use of that tactic -- as did current U.S. Judge R. David Proctor. Is it any surprise that Sessions now finds himself at the heart of the KremlinGate scandal?
At the heart of Sessions' actions in the Comey firing -- and in USX v. Tieco -- is stunning dishonesty and disregard for the rule of law. Consider that a letter from the Department of Justice, pushing for Comey's firing, cited his mishandling of the Clinton e-mail investigation. Trump and Sessions previously had praised Comey's conduct of that matter, so we are supposed to believe they now are using it to justify firing Comey.
It's hard to see how anyone with three functioning brain cells would fall for that one. The New York Times certainly isn't. From its editorial page yesterday:
The explanation for this shocking move — that Mr. Comey’s bungling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server violated longstanding Justice Department policy and profoundly damaged public trust in the agency — is impossible to take at face value. Certainly Mr. Comey deserves all the criticism heaped upon him for his repeated missteps in that case, but just as certainly, that’s not the reason Mr. Trump fired him.
Mr. Trump had nothing but praise for Mr. Comey when, in the final days of the presidential campaign, he informed Congress that the bureau was reopening the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s emails. “He brought back his reputation,” Mr. Trump said at the time. “It took a lot of guts.”
Of course, if Mr. Trump truly believed, as he said in his letter of dismissal, that Mr. Comey had undermined “public trust and confidence” in the agency, he could just as well have fired him on his first day in office.
The Times then gets to the heart of the matter:
Mr. Comey was fired because he was leading an active investigation that could bring down a president. Though compromised by his own poor judgment, Mr. Comey’s agency has been pursuing ties between the Russian government and Mr. Trump and his associates, with potentially ruinous consequences for the administration.
With congressional Republicans continuing to resist any serious investigation, Mr. Comey’s inquiry was the only aggressive effort to get to the bottom of Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign. So far, the scandal has engulfed Paul Manafort, one of Mr. Trump’s campaign managers; Roger Stone, a longtime confidant; Carter Page, one of the campaign’s early foreign-policy advisers; Michael Flynn, who was forced out as national security adviser; and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself in March from the Russia inquiry after failing to disclose during his confirmation hearings that he had met twice during the campaign with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
There is that name again -- Jeff Sessions. His actions in the firing of James Comey probably will go down as one of the most corrupt acts in U.S. history. If so, it won't be a surprise to those of us in Alabama, who have seen him get away with underhanded actions for decades. Perhaps he's finally gone a "bridge too far."