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Note to Jeff Sessions: 'Lock her up' is not the mission of the Justice Department

We live in a country of laws and no one should be above them. That includes the president. And it also includes Hillary Clinton, the president’s former campaign opponent. Where there is reason to believe wrongdoing or self-dealing has occurred in violation of the laws there should be an investigation and if necessary a prosecution.

But the calls by some Republicans for a special counsel to investigate Clinton smack of something other than a desire for evenhanded enforcement of the law. Rather, they are part of a desperate effort by the president, his allies in Congress and the right-wing media to take the focus off the tangled investigations into the Trump campaign’s conduct, and particularly into any possible collusion with Russia.

Earlier this month Trump tweeted: “Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn't looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems.” Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress have offered up a grab bag of incidents and insinuations they claim justify the appointment of a special counsel.

This dubious bill of particulars includes Clinton’s (minimal) role as secretary of state in the approval of the purchase by a Russian company of a controlling stake in Uranium One, a uranium company whose major investor had contributed to the Clinton Foundation; the investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server (yes, they’re still on about that); and the Democrats’ funding of the so-called “dossier” about Trump and Russia, which some Republicans theorize was the genesis of electronic surveillance of members of the Trump campaign.

On Tuesday Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee that any decision to name another special counsel would be guided by law, not politics. But his comments were only partly reassuring.

To his credit, Sessions told the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that any decision about another special counsel would be based on Justice Department regulations and “the facts.” After Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) suggested that it “looks like” the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party engaged in behavior that justifies the appointment of a special counsel, Sessions replied: “I would say 'looks like' is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel."

But Sessions sent a mixed message on an equally important question: whether he would be involved in the decision about whether to appoint a special counsel and if so, who it should be. Clearly he shouldn’t be.

At his confirmation hearings, Sessions promised the Senate that, because of his role in the Trump campaign, he would recuse himself from matters related to Clinton or the Clinton Foundation. But on Tuesday he testified that “I have directed senior federal prosecutors” to determine if allegations related to Clinton justify further action by the department, including the appointment of a special counsel.

Moreover, Sessions declined to say whether he would recuse himself from cases that might arise from further investigation, saying he couldn’t discuss the matter because of a Justice Department policy of not confirming whether it is conducting an investigation.

That’s a dodge. All Sessions has to say is that his promise to recuse himself from Clinton-related matters would extend to the issues Republicans are citing in agitating for a special counsel (including the original investigation of Clinton’s emails) as well as the decision about whether to appoint such an official. That decision should be made by Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein and it should be based on the facts and the law.

From the beginning, Trump’s “lock her up” attitude toward the woman he defeated has been cynical and irresponsible, reminiscent of the way leaders in authoritarian societies treat their political opponents. The Justice Department must not act in a way that suggests it is doing his bidding.

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