President Donald Trump on Tuesday ramped up his public shame campaign against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, even as conservatives and some White House advisers are cautioning Trump against seeking his ouster.
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!” Trump tweeted. He referenced a POLITICO report in another post noting that Ukraine sought to sabotage his campaign to boost Clinton. “So where is the investigation A.G.” Trump asked.
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In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Trump said he was “very disappointed” in Sessions, but he refused to say whether he was planning to fire his attorney general.
“I’m just looking at it,” he said. “It’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement.”
The latest attacks came after Trump referred to Sessions, one of his earliest high-profile supporters, as “beleaguered” on Monday, and dressed him down in a New York Times interview last week for recusing himself from the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Some White House advisers are warning the president against dismissing the attorney general. Chief strategist Steve Bannon, for example, has emphasized that firing Sessions is a risky move that would cast the White House in a negative light and potentially unleash a political disaster, according to a senior White House aide.
Breitbart News, which Bannon ran before joining the Trump campaign and later the White House, called Trump a hypocrite for backing off his calls to prosecute Clinton after he was elected, only to attack Sessions for not pursuing a case against her.
“Trump himself was the one who flip-flopped on whether to prosecute Clinton,” politics reporter Adam Shaw wrote for the conservative media outlet. “Trump’s base reasoned that they would rather have a border wall than Hillary Clinton prosecuted. But now they may end up with neither.”
Adding to the pressure on Trump, conservative outside groups and leaders came to Sessions’ defense on Tuesday, including the Family Research Council, National Sheriffs’ Association, Tea Party Patriots, and Jim DeMint of the Conservative Partnership Institute.
They are warning that Trump could face a backlash if he tries to oust Sessions who has deep roots among the law enforcement and legal community, conservative family groups and think tanks, and fellow senators — many of which mobilized during the confirmation process to ensure Sessions sailed through.
“There is a sense of nervousness among conservatives that this is not the fight to be having right now,” said a Sessions ally and conservative strategist. “Sessions has only been in the job for three to four months, and he is helping the president fulfill his campaign promises.”
Trump has been frank about his frustration that Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe after he came under fire for failing to disclose meetings he had with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.
Incoming White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci on Tuesday morning said it was “probably right” that Trump wants Sessions out of the job.
When conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked, “It’s clear the president wants him gone, right?” Scaramucci replied that “I have an enormous amount of respect for the attorney general, but I do know the president pretty well, and if there’s this level of tension in the relationship that — that’s public, you’re probably right.”
Trump assails Sessions for ‘very weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes’
Later Tuesday, Scaramucci predicted that there would soon be movement on Sessions’ future. “There’s obviously an issue in the relationship,” he told reporters. “We’ll get to a resolution shortly.”
In the meantime, Scaramucci, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders all stressed that Trump is frustrated by Sessions’ recusal.
“That frustration certainly hasn’t gone away, and, you know, I don’t think it will,” said Sanders, who maintained that Trump would “certainly” fire Sessions “if the president wants to.”
“That is up to the president,” Conway told Fox about the possibility of Trump firing Sessions, “but Sarah is right. The president has expressed frustration and consternation because the recusal really has allowed this — what he considers to be a witch hunt and a hoax, a complete nothing of a Russia investigation — to carry forward, and look at what’s happened.”
Sessions’ recusal — along with other events — paved the way for special counsel Robert Mueller to be appointed, which has led to a sprawling investigation of the president and his closest allies and family members. Trump’s tweets, however, have glossed over the fact that Sessions has recused himself from any campaign probes, which include Clinton matters.
Even with Trump emphatically calling out Sessions during a New York Times interview last week, the attorney general has said he will stay on “as long as that is appropriate.”
Trump’s onslaught has damaged the mood among career lawyers and other employees at the Justice Department who haven’t seen an attorney general get publicly attacked by the president in recent administrations, according to a Justice Department source.
“DOJ is full of professionals who can shrug their shoulders and keep their focus, but this is first time I’ve seen morale dip like this,” said one DOJ employee.
Trump’s public assault on Sessions is also alarming Democrats, who worry that Trump is trying to clear the path for an attorney general who will do more to protect him.
“Fully transparent: @POTUS wants to force Sessions to resign so he can appoint someone to curb Mueller probe. Only works if Senate lets it,” Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is also conducting a Russia probe, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
“Why doesn’t he just fire him? If he’s lost confidence in him, he could just say so and he would resign,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) told POLITICO outside the NAACP Convention in Baltimore on Tuesday. “At some point, you ought to get the hint and resign.”
If Sessions quits or is fired, Trump does have some options available to him, including appointing an acting attorney general or making a recess appointment — though it’s not clear how much power that person would have to oust Mueller or otherwise limit the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Scaramucci, in his interview with Hewitt, said that he has advised Trump against having Mueller terminated. “In candid conversations with the president, I have said, ‘Why would you fire him?’” Scaramucci said.
As for Sessions, he has so far shown no public signs of stepping aside. He left a 20-year career in the Senate for the attorney general post, which has allowed him to fulfill some of his long-held goals, including overseeing a widespread crackdown on immigration and other priorities.
Tuesday has been a “business as usual” day of meetings at DOJ headquarters in downtown Washington for Sessions, who “started the day with oatmeal, like always,” a senior DOJ official told POLITICO.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters it’s up to Trump to determine the personnel of his administration but argued that the chamber is focused on the president’s agenda.
“It’s up to the president to decide what his personnel decisions [are] and any possible fallout that comes from that. If he has concerns about anyone on in the administration in the conduct of their jobs, I’m sure he’s gonna talk to them directly,” Ryan said. “What we’re focused on here is doing our jobs. We’re not focused on what the Department of Justice is or is not doing.”
But GOP senators went to bat for their former colleague. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a longtime friend of Sessions, said on Tuesday morning that the attorney general made the “right decision” to recuse himself from the Russia probe.
“I know Jeff Sessions well … and I think he’s doing what he believes he’s obligated to do under the rules that govern attorney generals, and in order to restore the credibility of the Department of Justice and the FBI, something we sorely need,” Cornyn said on CNN.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a frequent Trump critic, hailed Sessions as “one of the most decent people I’ve ever met in my political life.” “President Trump’s tweet today suggesting Attorney General Sessions pursue prosecution of a former political rival is highly inappropriate,” Graham said in a statement.
“Prosecutorial decisions should be based on applying facts to the law without hint of political motivation. To do otherwise is to run away from the long-standing American tradition of separating the law from politics regardless of party.”
Trump’s aides have given conflicting signals about the president’s plans for Sessions, possibly because Trump himself has not settled on a plan.
Sanders had said Thursday that Trump “clearly” has confidence in Sessions, but by Tuesday she wasn’t so emphatic.
“Right now, Attorney General Sessions is the attorney general. And I haven’t been part of any conversations discussing potential replacements, and so I can’t comment on that,” Sanders said Tuesday.
Scaramucci insisted an attorney general should serve as a “hockey goalie for the president,” a dynamic he said Trump and Sessions don’t have.
“I’m not saying these guys did anything illegal, but I think when you think about the relationship John F. Kennedy had with his brother as attorney general, or you think about that relationship that the president had with Eric Holder, President Obama, they probably don’t have that sort of relationship,” Scaramucci said. “And I think the president, when he thinks about the architecture of his Cabinet, I think he needs that sort of a relationship there.”
Eliana Johnson, Nancy Cook, Daniel Lippman, Tara Palmeri, Josh Gerstein, Negassi Tesfamichael and Jake Lahut contributed to this report.