While Attorney General Jeff Sessions has thus far remained unrepentant in the face of accusations of perjury and the growing call to step down, his reluctant recusal on Thursday from federal investigations into possible foreign meddling in the 2016 election could pave the way for a special prosecutor and thus a greater chance of impartiality in the Russia probe.
With Sessions out of the way, the decision to launch an independent investigation now falls to the deputy attorney general.
As The Intercept's Jon Schwarz pointed out late Tuesday,
There is currently no permanent deputy attorney general, just Acting Attorney General Dana Boente, a former U.S. Attorney who stepped in after Sally Yates, an Obama appointee, was fired. However, Donald Trump's nominee, U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein, will undergo confirmation hearings with the Senate Judiciary Committee this month.
And those Judiciary Committee members can now ask Rosenstein to commit to naming a special prosecutor before voting whether to send his nomination to the full Senate.
According to Politico, Rosenstein's confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin next Tuesday and the Sessions affair is likely to "take center stage."
What's more, the argument that Sessions' deputy would also not be able to impartially preside over a probe in which the attorney general is, even nominally, involved has further bolstered the call for a special counsel.
"Sessions recused himself. But his subordinates cannot conduct the investigation of their boss," legal ethics specialist and New York University law professor Stephen Gillers told Politico's Josh Gerstein. "They are not independent. A special prosecutor, who cannot be removed except for cause, is needed."
Further, Gerstein observes that should the independent investigation come to pass, Sessions' headaches will likely only increase.
Outlining some of the historic precedent for accusations of perjury against government officials, he reports: "Veteran defense attorneys said that whatever the chances are that Sessions faces charges over his testimony, they increase if a special prosecutor—especially one from outside the department—is appointed to examine the attorney general's statements as well as other matters related to alleged Russian influence in the election."
But many have gone a step further. The campaign for Sessions to #ResignNotRecuse himself has taken off in the days since the Washington Post first published its damning story on the attorney general's undisclosed meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
"There must be an independent investigation into the election. Sessions did not promise that, and leaders of both parties should demand it," wrote Richard Eskow, senior fellow at Campaign for America's Future. "They should also make it clear that no one is above the law, by demanding an independent criminal investigation of Sessions' Senate testimony."
"Recusal is not enough," Eskow added. "Jeff Sessions has shown that he is not fit to serve as Attorney General. In the name of equal justice for all, he must resign."
In an op-ed in the New York Times on Thursday, Richard Painter, former White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush, noted that President Donald Trump "has already fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for misleading Vice President Pence about his conversations with the Russians. Misleading the United States Senate in testimony under oath is at least as serious."
"We do not yet know all the facts," Painter concluded, "but we know enough to see that Attorney General Sessions has to go as well."