SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday he won't yet appoint a new special counsel to investigate how the FBI and Justice Department have handled high-profile cases. Instead, he has tapped Utah's top federal prosecutor to lead a review.
Last year, Sessions directed U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber to evaluate "certain issues," including whether a new special counsel is necessary, he said in a letter Thursday to three Republican committee leaders that was short on specifics.
He noted that such outside appointments are reserved only for "extraordinary circumstances," according Justice Department regulations, and that his office can veer from its normal processes in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
Sessions pointed to Huber's chops as a prosecutor and to his location 2,000 miles from Washington.
Huber has not commented on the assignment.
The letter comes a day after the Justice Department's inspector general announced that it would honor Sessions' request to review whether law enforcement officials abused their surveillance powers in seeking permission to monitor the communications of President Donald Trump's former campaign adviser Carter Page.
Huber's review includes that case, Sessions indicated in his letter to the Republican leaders.
The announcement is likely to unnerve Republicans in Congress who have called for a new special counsel to study alleged misconduct in politically charged FBI investigations. They have called for Sessions to appoint a special counsel to review whether Justice Department or FBI employees were biased during their now-closed probe of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, and as they began investigating Trump campaign ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Democrats have said the GOP accusations aim to undermine the separate work of special counsel Robert Mueller as his team's Russia investigation intensifies.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, didn't weigh in on the probes his colleagues have demanded, but he said in a statement that Sessions "has picked the right man for the job."
"Mr. Huber brings decades of experience to his latest, and now very public, assignment. Most importantly, he brings the independent perspective of an accomplished federal prosecutor who has spent his career far removed from the politics of Washington," said Hatch, the senior member and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sessions said Huber is no stranger to leadership roles in the attorney general's office. Huber previously led the office's national security section and was the executive assistant attorney general, in addition to prosecuting high-profile violent-crime and terrorism cases in Utah, he said.
"Mr. Huber is conducting his work from outside the Washington, D.C., area," Sessions added.
Sessions' earlier request to the inspector general angered Trump, who said Sessions should have ordered his own investigation. But in his letter to lawmakers, Sessions reminded them that the inspector general's office can and often does refer matters for prosecution.
And he said the Justice Department has proved capable of handling "high-profile, resource-intensive matters" without the rare appointment of a special counsel.
Huber's review is ongoing, and Sessions said he gets regular updates. The attorney general did not indicate any timeline for the review, but said Huber was working in cooperation with Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
Sessions said Huber would recommend whether more resources, other investigations or a special counsel are needed.
Huber, an Obama administration holdover renominated to serve in Utah, will conduct a "full, complete and objective evaluation" of Republican concerns and submit recommendations, Sessions said.
Contributing: Associated Press