WASHINGTON (AP) -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday defended President Donald Trump's right to pardon former Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Bush administration official I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Both of those pardons were issued by Trump and bypassed the involvement of the Justice Department and its pardon attorney, which historically reviews petitions for clemency and makes recommendations.
Sessions made the comments at a Senate subcommittee hearing where Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, reminded him that as a Republican senator from Alabama, Sessions had once defended the role of the Justice Department's pardon attorney.
Sessions said he stood by that assessment. But he also said that there was no question that the president had the constitutional authority to issue pardons without the Justice Department's involvement and that there was no requirement that a president seek the opinion of the pardon attorney.
"It's clearly within the power of the president to execute pardons without the pardon attorney," Sessions said.
He acknowledged under questioning that he could not recall any pardon during President Barack Obama's administration that did not go through the Justice Department, but he complained about pardons from President Bill Clinton that he considered objectionable.
"I would just say that pardons that President Clinton were made were stunning, shocking and unacceptable on the merits," he said in a raised voice. That was likely a reference to the 2001 pardon of fugitive businessman Marc Rich, an act that later came under federal investigation.
He defended Arpaio as a legitimate pardon candidate because of the former Arizona sheriff's advanced age of 85 and misdemeanor contempt-of-court conviction. He also said Libby had "contributed greatly to America." Libby, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted in 2007 of lying to investigators and obstruction of justice following the 2003 leak of the covert identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, though no one was ever charged for the leak.
At another point in the hearing, Sessions declined to answer whether he had recused himself from an ongoing Justice Department investigation into Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer. Sessions said he continued to honor his decision from last year to step aside from the investigation into potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, but he said it would be inappropriate beyond that to discuss particular matters he was recused from.
"It is the policy of the Department of Justice that those who recuse themselves not state the details of it, or confirm the existence of an investigation or the scope or nature of that investigation," Sessions said.
He also said he supported his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel in the Russia investigation and who, like Sessions, has been under steady public attack from the president.