Trump attorney general pick Sen. Jeff Sessions dodged a question during his Senate confirmation hearings about whether he would subpoena or prosecute journalists for doing their jobs.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked Sessions whether he would abide by current Justice Department regulations that make it difficult to subpoena or prosecute reporters, and whether he would pledge not to “put reporters in jail for doing their job.”
Sessions offered a non-committal answer.
“Senator Klobuchar, I am not sure,” he testified. “I have not studied that, those regulations. I would note that when I was the United States Attorney, we knew, everybody knew, that you could not subpoena a witness or push them to be interviewed if they’re a member of the media, without approval at high levels of the Department of Justice. That was in the 1980s. So I do believe the Department of Justice does have sensitivity to this issue.”
Justice Department guidelines have long required federal prosecutors to receive approval for subpoenaing or prosecuting members of the media. It was these guidelines that prevented an assistant U.S. attorney from indicting a Texas reporter in 1984, as POLITICO Magazine reported last month.
The key question is whether Sessions, as the head of the Justice Department, would approve a federal prosecutor’s subpoena or prosecution of a journalist.
“For the most part, there is a broadly recognized and proper deference to the news media,” he said Tuesday. “But you could have a situation in which media’s not the unbiased media we seen today, and they could be a mechanism through which unlawful intelligence is obtained. There are other dangers that could happen with regard to the federal government that normally doesn’t happen to the media covering murder cases in the states.”
Sessions’ answer to Klobuchar’s question suggests that he would take a dim view of journalists who obtain classified information from sources in the federal government. That would be consistent with his past views. A recent report from the Reporter’s Committee for the Freedom of the Press notes that he opposed a federal shield law, which would have prevented journalists from being compelled to reveal their confidential sources during federal investigations.
During the Obama administration, the Justice Department prosecuted a number of government employees for leaking classified information to reporters. As part of those leak investigations, reporters were subpoenaed to testify about their confidential sources. Journalists who refused to testify were threatened with jail time. But none were actually jailed. Both current U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and predecessor Eric Holder publicly pledged not to imprison journalists.