I Feel Jeff Sessions’ Pain


Leonard Zwelling

Apparently, Mr. Trump has suggested via yet another Tweet Storm that Attorney General Jeff Sessions ought to pull the plug on the Mueller probe. Mr. Sessions, to his credit, is largely ignoring his boss, something that the recused AG has gotten really good at over the months since his appointment. Frankly, I am sure he is wondering why he ever agreed to leave his safe seat in the Senate to work for Mr. Trump. Alas, water under the bridge. Mr. Sessions has recused himself from involvement in the Russia probe of the Trump campaign because he was an intimate part of that campaign and was right to do so.

I know how Jeff Sessions feels to have your boss suggest you curtail an activity that you really cannot stop nor believe that you ought to.

Many years ago, when I was a vice president overseeing the clinical research infrastructure at Anderson, my boss was not happy with me for allowing the Institutional Review Board to come down hard on the Department of Adult Leukemia for misdeeds in the conduct of clinical research. He wanted me to restore the clinical research privileges of two Leukemia doctors that had been taken away by the IRB. First, neither he nor I could reverse an IRB action. Second, I thought the IRB was correct in its decision to dock the two docs.

I fear that Mr. Sessions is likely to suffer the same consequences I did. I was never seen in good favor by the president of MD Anderson again and my eventual resignation of the oversight of clinical research was welcomed by that president. Three years later, I was fired. The only reason I wasn’t fired on the spot, I believe was that people close to the president of Anderson let him know that he could not control the IRB and that I was only doing my job—just as Jeff Sessions is doing his staying out of the Mueller probe.

It is not at all uncommon for leaders of academic institutions to try to have their way with the IRB. But IRBs don’t report to anyone at the institution at which they are constituted. They report to the federal government, basically acting as surrogates for the Office of Human Research Protections. I could no more have reversed the decision of the IRB than I could have determined which department got lab space in a new research building. Unlike the space in the research building, however, the president of MD Anderson couldn’t reverse IRB decisions either. I don’t think that my boss at the time, the president, really understood the rules regulating human subjects research. He still saw his role as that of a healer and decider of what is good for patients. If that is experimental therapy and he decides that is what the patient needs, he thought that was enough. It’s not. The patient, the principal investigator, and the patient’s treating physician must all abide by the rules of the Code of Federal Regulations and the decisions of the IRB, even if the president doesn’t much like the decisions.

Mr. Trump may feel that the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt” and that it should end. It’s not up to Mr. Sessions to end it and it would be a big mistake to end a probe that has already led to five guilty pleas and over 30 indictments under the leadership of Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein.

Mr. Trump’s lawyer (shall we call him Caustic Rudy?) says that the tweet is just Mr. Trump’s opinion and does not represent an attempt to obstruct justice. Mr. Mueller is reading the tweets. No wonder Trump wants him out of work.

Leonard Zwelling