Attorney General Jeff Sessions is vowing to preserve the independence of the Justice Department in the wake of reports of White House efforts to get the FBI to issue statements to the press about an investigation into alleged Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election.
However, speaking to reporters Monday, Sessions cautioned that not all such exchanges between White House officials and law enforcement are automatically unethical.
“The FBI and Department of Justice have to remain independent and they will do so, but every contact is not improper,” Sessions said.
Asked if he had advance knowledge about the exchanges between the White House and the FBI, Sessions said he did not.
“I have not examined those in detail,” he said.
Sessions also continued to be cagey about whether he will accede to calls from some lawmakers that he bow out of any decisions related to that probe because of the prominent role he played in President Donald Trump’s campaign.
“I will recuse myself on anything that I should recuse myself from. That’s all I can tell you,” the attorney general said.
Sessions spoke with journalists at Justice Department headquarters in advance of his first major speech since being sworn in earlier this month: an address Tuesday morning in Washington to the National Association of Attorneys General.
Sessions’ address is slated to focus on his main goal in his new job: stemming what he contends is a rising tide of violent crime in the U.S. brought on in part by lax policies under the Obama administration.
“Some of the big cities have huge increases in murder rate and, so, it’s an unhealthy trend,” the attorney general said. “Nobody knows, but my judgment is this is not a blip, but something is happening out there and we’re seeing, I’m afraid, a longer term trend of crime and violent crime going up, which is not what we want in America. We’ve gotten a little overconfident.”
Overall crime rates remain at or near their lowest levels in the past 20 to 30 years. However, homicide rates have risen in the past couple of years and have risen sharply in about half a dozen large American cities, including Chicago.
“I’m really worried about Chicago with the surge in murders. … One of the metrics that has been reported in Chicago shows a dramatic reduction in stops and arrests in Chicago by the police department,” Sessions said. “That has got to be a factor in the increase in violence in the city.”
Sessions said he was intent on improving police morale as a way to prevent violence crime. He also acknowledged that good relations between police and the public are important to that equation, but he did not say clearly Monday how he plans to address those concerns, often driven by incidents involving police officers’ shooting members of the community.
The attorney general did say that he hopes federal investigations into such incidents result in settlements that “make sure that we advance good policing strategies.”
Sessions said he had not yet read the full results of the Justice Department’s reviews into policing in Ferguson, Mo. and Chicago. However, he said the federal government should sometimes defer to local officials in such investigations.
“Sometimes local police departments really step up and do agreat job and it’s almost disrespectful of them for the feds to go in and try to take it over,” he said.