By AUSTIN WRIGHT , SEUNG MIN KIM and KYLE CHENEY
July 25, 2017
Congressional Republicans and conservative activists rallied behind Jeff Sessions on Tuesday, as President Donald Trump continued his public humiliation campaign against the embattled attorney general. Still, some top GOP lawmakers said the president was well within in his right to decide who should sit in his Cabinet.
Democrats, meanwhile, suggested an ulterior motive behind Trump’s attacks on the former Alabama senator — saying the president could be laying the groundwork to install a new attorney general who would rein in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
The staunchest defense of Sessions came from Sen. Lindsey Graham, a frequent Trump critic and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department.
The South Carolina Republican said it was “highly inappropriate” for Trump to tweet Tuesday that Sessions has gone too easy on Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state — and suggested the president’s comments threatened to undermine the rule of law.
“Prosecutorial decisions should be based on applying facts to the law without hint of political motivation,” Graham said in a statement. “To do otherwise is to run away from the long-standing American tradition of separating the law from politics regardless of party.”
Graham also called Sessions “one of the most decent people I’ve ever met in my political life.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), one of Trump’s top allies in the Senate, said he hopes Trump will treat Sessions “with respect.”
“The president is a person with deep emotions,” Hatch said. “Sometimes he says things that I’m sure afterwards he wishes he hasn’t said just like the rest of us. He’s a very strong personality, and he’s said so many good things about Jeff Sessions that I don’t see why anybody could fail to look at both sides.”
The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, told CNN that Sessions did the “right thing” by recusing himself from investigations involving the Trump campaign.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C) issued a statement defending Sessions as someone with “unwavering commitment to the rule of law” and said his leadership was “needed now more than ever.” And Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, from Sessions’ home state of Alabama, issued a series of tweets calling Sessions “a man of integrity, loyalty, and extraordinary character.”
A number of outside conservative and law enforcement groups also voiced support for Sessions, including the Family Research Council, the Tea Party Patriots and the National Sheriffs’ Association.
Jim DeMint, the former conservative senator and president of the Heritage Foundation who is now chairman of the Conservative Partnership Institute, said on Twitter: “Trump right about media’s Russia obsession. Hope he sees Jeff Sessions is a great leader that will defend Constitution & rule of law.”
Sessions also got a boost from NumbersUSA, which advocates reduced immigration and has long fought alongside Sessions. The conservative news outlet Breitbart, one of Trump’s biggest promoters during the 2016 presidential campaign, also appeared to side with Sessions over the president, warning that Trump was endangering his immigration agenda by going after Sessions.
But not every Republican on Capitol Hill rushed to Sessions’ defense — and some sought to both praise Sessions while also rationalizing Trump’s tweets attacking him.
“I think Jeff Sessions is a good man,” said Sen John Kennedy (R-La.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “But he works for the president of the United States.”
Conservative Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) said Trump’s broadsides against Sessions were a reflection of the president’s frustration with Democratic opponents and perceived media bias.
“Trump is frustrated that Sen. Sessions acted on kind of just mainstream protocol and recused himself by staying to ethics at the highest level when it wasn’t required,” Brat said. “From Trump’s vantage point, our guys are fighting like Cub Scouts against a full-on assault.”
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) called Sessions a “noble public servant and a valued human being.” And he said he believes the president thinks so too, despite the criticism.
“He is expressing an opinion that is understandable given the present circumstances,” Franks said. “But I do not think the president has lost faith in Jeff Sessions. And I certainly haven’t.”
For his part, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said it was Trump’s “prerogative” to make personnel decisions in his administration.
“He determines who is hired and fired in the executive branch,” Ryan told reporters. “If he has concerns or questions or problems with the attorney general I’m sure he’ll bring them up with him.”
Trump has been attacking Sessions since last week, when he told The New York Times he would not have tapped him as attorney general if he had known he was going to recuse himself from the FBI’s Russia probe.
Trump called Sessions “beleaguered” in a tweet on Monday and followed up with a tweet Tuesday writing, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!”
Trump is reportedly now considering firing Sessions — and Democrats are expressing concern about his motives.
“Here is the danger,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Many Americans must be wondering if the president is trying to pry open the office of attorney general to appoint someone during the August recess who will fire Special Counsel Mueller and shut down the Russia investigation.”
He added the Democrats would never go along with a recess appointment in that situation and that “we have some tools in our toolbox to stymie such an action and we are ready to use all of them.”
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said Tuesday he was not sure how Sessions could continue as attorney general “with this public vote of no confidence” from the president.
“I don’t know how the president will inspire loyalty from his staff with public statements like the one he made on Jeff Sessions,” Durbin added.
Shown Trump’s tweets on Tuesday morning, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said he found the situation bizarre.
“Why doesn’t he just fire him?” Scott asked. “If he’s lost confidence in him, he could just say so and he would resign.”
Scott said he’s curious whether the House and Senate will go into recess in August and allow Trump the chance to install a new attorney general through a recess appointment that would not require Senate confirmation.
In recent years, the Senate has attempted to avert such moves by meeting briefly every few days during recess periods. However, Scott said it would be embarrassing if Republicans decided they need to rein in their own president.
“It would be insulting to suggest they need the protection of the president of their own party,” Scott said. “It would say a lot if they refused to recess.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, suggested on Twitter that Trump’s attacks on Mueller could be part of an effort to undermine the special counsel’s investigation, which is looking into the possibility of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
“Fully transparent: @POTUS wants to force Sessions to resign so he can appoint someone to curb Mueller probe,” Schiff wrote. “Only works if Senate lets it.”
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