By Josh Gerstein and Josh Dawsey
July 26, 2017
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ supporters in Congress and the conservative movement are pressing forward with a loose-knit but determined effort to defend him in the wake of yet another day of pointed Twitter attacks from his boss, President Donald Trump.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was among Sessions’ most vocal defenders Wednesday, when he seemed to almost be taunting the president, suggesting that his failure to fire Sessions showed weakness, while also hinting that the impact of such a move could be catastrophic for Trump’s presidency.
“He’s trying to get Sessions to quit and I hope Sessions doesn’t quit. If the president wants to fire him, fire him,” Graham said. “I think anybody who’s strong would use the power they have and be confident in his decision. Strong people say: ‘I’ve decided this man or woman can’t serve me well and I’m going to act accordingly and take the consequence.’ To me weakness is when you play around the edges and don’t use the power you have.”
One conservative activist said that an effort is underway to coordinate and amplify such statements because of fears that Trump doesn’t understand the blow his administration and the conservative movement would suffer if Sessions departs.
“No question that party-wide, conservatives in the Republican Party are very concerned about the ramifications and effects of Sessions no longer being the AG,” said the activist, who asked not to be named. “A lot of people on all sides of the Republican Party are in common agreement that it would be very bad for the president and the party if the AG goes.”
The activist said part of the message is aimed at trying to “buck up” Sessions, while the other part is intended to reach Trump.
“The message we’re trying to make sure reaches the president is: Is this fight to have right now? The danger of this fight with [Attorney] General Sessions is he’s not only a loyal supporter of the president which sends a bad message to supporters, but he’s also getting the job done,” said the source, referring to Session’s initiatives on such issues as illegal immigration and toughening criminal sentencing.
Numerous prominent conservative voices have publicly rallied to Sessions side, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), former Trump transition domestic policy chief and Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.
“I think he should keep Jeff Sessions. And I think he ought to quit publicly maligning him,” Gingrich said on NPR early Wednesday. “I think that Jeff Sessions, in fact, was one of his earliest and most loyal supporters. I think Jeff Sessions is a solid conservative. I think, yeah, you can argue either way. I mean, even a guy like Rudy Giuliani, who’s very pro-Trump, said he would have recused himself.”
“I understand the President’s frustration with the endless media obsession over Russia. … But pushing Jeff Sessions out won’t get Congress to move forward on his policies or stop liberals attacks, and Trump would lose a great ally and widely respected advocate for the rule of law,” DeMint said in a statement.
Several Republican senators have reached out directly to Sessions and told him to stay put, expressing their frustrations with his puzzling situation, according to a person with knowledge of the contacts. Sessions has basically mused back to them he doesn’t understand it either — but that he won’t quit at the moment.
The senators view Trump’s treatment of their former colleague as “offensive,” the source said. Some GOP senators also fear that if Trump pushes Sessions out, the results could be dire for Trump. Such a development might lead to mass resignations at the Justice Department and it might be impossible to find a majority in the Senate to confirm a replacement for Sessions, the source added.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tweeted Wednesday that he had no intention of trying to confirm a new attorney general this year: “Everybody in D.C. Shld b warned that the agenda for the judiciary Comm is set for rest of 2017. Judges first subcabinet 2nd / AG no way.”
Despite public and private urging from various quarters that Trump abandon his public laceration of his attorney general, the president took another shot at Sessions on Wednesday morning, faulting him for failing to remove acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
“Why didn’t A.G. Sessions replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation but got big dollars ($700,000) for his wife’s political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives. Drain the Swamp!” Trump tweeted.
Trump’s statement was puzzling because the president has the authority to name an acting FBI director and the White House publicly toyed with the idea of bringing in another FBI official to replace McCabe, but never did so.
Senior White House strategist Steve Bannon is the moving force in the effort to persuade Trump to back away from his public salvos at Sessions, sources said.
Trump’s repeated pillorying of his own Cabinet member led to some bizarre spectacles on Capitol Hill, including some Democrats seeming to express sympathy for Sessions.
“President Trump continues to find new ways to humiliate his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, a man who stuck his neck out for the President before any other Senator would,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday, reacting to a Wall Street Journal interview Tuesday where the president suggested Sessions jumped aboard his campaign to ride Trump’s political coattails.
“As I remember it, when Jeff Sessions supported him he was an underdog. And everyone said wow Jeff Sessions is doing that out of loyalty and friendship with Donald Trump. Not because he was jumping on a train that was headed down the track. Maybe he saw that, but no one else did,” Schumer said. “And now the President humiliates him. I would say to my fellow Americans, Democrat, Republican, liberal conservative, every American should be troubled by the character of a person who humiliates and turns his back on a close friend after only six months.
Schumer—who in March called for Sessions to resign over his contacts with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak —warned Wednesday that forcing Sessions out would be a prelude to an effort to dismiss the man leading the investigation into the Trump campaigns alleged ties to Russia, Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The Democratic leader said he’d do everything in his power to thwart such a move.
“All Americans should be wondering: why is the President publicly, publicly demeaning and humiliating such a close friend and supporter, a member of his own cabinet? They should wonder 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,” Schumer added. “Let me say, if such a situation arises, Democrats would use every tool in our toolbox to stymie such a recess appointment.”
Democrats’ statements of concern for Sessions left some observers’ heads spinning.
“Only Trump could make Sessions into a sympathetic figure,” said James Gagliano, a former FBI agent in New York and an adjunct professor of leadership studies at St. Johns University. “It’s unifying some factions I don’t think would ever have unified. Maybe he is a unifier.”
Gagliano also voiced concern Wednesday for McCabe, a former colleague now caught in the crossfire of Trump’s fight with Sessions.
“Andy is a guy I’d consider a model FBI agent. It’s too bad to see somebody ridiculed, mocked and shamed publicly because of the president’s bigger political aspirations,” Gagliano said. “What is the point in going after him publicly in 140 characters or, today 280 characters? What is the point of it? What does it serve. I don’t know. “
Graham said Sessions doesn’t plan to leave his post despite the highly publicized snubs from Trump.
“He’s a humble man. He says, ‘I’m trying to make a difference here, I want to serve the president well,’ and just, basically he’s not a quitter,” Graham added.
He denied suggestions that he’d directly asked other senators to speak out on Sessions’ behalf.
“Nope. That’s what was so neat about it…. I think a lot of people are speaking their mind and I’m very pleased with how our colleagues are rising to the occasion,” Graham told POLITICO on Wednesday afternoon. “I called Jeff yesterday morning when I saw the tweets and said ‘Jeff, I’m sorry, you just hang in there. A lot of us will have your back’ and he really appreciated it….It was me calling him and I read him my statement. He said, ‘That meant a lot to me.”
Kyle Cheney and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
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