U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee, where he is likely to face questions about his directive for senior federal prosecutors to examine whether it is appropriate to open investigations into a number of issues raised by Republican lawmakers.
Committee chairman Rep. Robert Goodlatte, asked Sessions in July and September to appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations of collusion between Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee, issues linked to her use of a private email system while serving as secretary of state, the Clinton Foundation and an Obama-era purchase of American uranium mines by a Russian-backed company.
The letter also asked for an examination of certain aspects of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd responded in a letter Monday that Sessions tasked prosecutors with evaluating "certain issues" raised by Goodlatte.
Boyd said the prosecutors would report directly to Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein "as appropriate" and recommend whether any investigations should be opened or expanded. He further pledged the Justice Department "will never evaluate any matter except on the facts and the law."
President Donald Trump has strongly criticized an investigation by former FBI chief Robert Mueller into Russia's role in the election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in a January report that Russia directed an effort to help Trump's chances of winning.
Trump has repeatedly called for more law enforcement scrutiny of Clinton.
"Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn't looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems...'' Trump tweeted last month.
The president's comments and the move by Sessions brought complaints from Democrats about executive interference with the judicial branch.
"If the AG bends to pressure from President Trump and his allies, and appoints a special counsel to investigate Trump’s vanquished rival, it could spell the end of the DOJ as an independent institution," Rep. Adam Schiff said on Twitter.
Rep. Gregory Meeks said the attorney general's actions were a "political smokescreen" meant to distract from collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
"The President & Sessions just politicized the Dept. of Justice, trampling on this country's sacred rule of law," Meeks tweeted.
Rep. Andy Biggs, who was one of the Republicans who signed onto Goodlatte's letter, said the Justice Department's response is "encouraging," but not as decisive as the lawmakers would have liked.
"We must have an unbiased, independent special counsel to investigate the matters we have raised. We have spent long enough on meaningless evaluations and empty promises," Biggs said in a statement.