By Jordan Fabian, Jonathan Easley and Morgan Chalfant
July 25, 2017
President Trump is ramping up pressure on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign in a desperate bid to regain control of the Russia investigation that has consumed his presidency.
For the past week, Trump has made clear his desire for Sessions to leave the administration with a series of public statements designed to humiliate him.
Trump doubled down on his sharp criticism of the nation’s top law enforcement official, saying at a Tuesday press conference he was “disappointed” with him and that only “time will tell” his fate.
“I told you before: I’m very disappointed in my attorney general,” Trump said when asked if he will fire Sessions or ask him to resign. “But we will see what happens. Time will tell, time will tell.”
Those comments came after Trump took to Twitter Tuesday morning to accuse Sessions of taking “a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes.” He also swiped at Sessions Monday, asking why his “beleaguered A.G.” isn’t “looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations.”
Trump’s anger with Sessions had been one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington until last Wednesday, when the president told The New York Times that the attorney general “should have never recused himself” from the Russia probe because it was “very unfair to the president.”
He said he would not have picked Sessions as his attorney general if he knew he would have made such a decision.
Trump’s top advisers have been peppered with questions about whether the president will ax Sessions. Instead of downplaying talk of Sessions’s ouster, they’ve thrown fuel on the fire.
“The president is frustrated about the recusal and has made that very clear,” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior counselor, told reporters when asked if he has confidence in his attorney general.
Conway showed some annoyance with the question, asking a reporter: “How do you know your boss has confidence in you? Because you’re standing here with your fancy pass? How do you know somebody’s not emptying out your desk right now?”
New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci appeared Tuesday morning on Hugh Hewitt’s talk radio show, where Hewitt said that it was obvious Trump wants Sessions gone.
“If there’s this level of tension in the relationship that’s public, you’re probably right,” Scaramucci responded.
A Justice Department spokesperson told The Hill there are no updates about Sessions’s employment status. Sessions was at the White House on Monday but did not speak with Trump, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Trump’s treatment of the former Alabama Republican senator provoked furious pushback from his former colleagues in the Senate, opening up a new fissure between the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill at a time when they’re trying to advance their agenda on healthcare and tax reform.
The lineup of conservatives and Republicans backing Sessions could make it difficult for Trump to win Senate confirmation for a new attorney general if Sessions is fired or resigns.
Sessions’s home-state colleague, Sen. Richard Shelby (R), called him “a man of integrity, loyalty and extraordinary character.” Shelby said Sessions has his “unwavering support” as attorney general.
GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Mike Lee (Utah) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) all went out of their way to praise Sessions.
Backing for Sessions even came from unlikely sources, including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who took to the Senate floor to excoriate Trump for publicly humiliating a friend and longtime ally.
“We should all take a moment to think of how shocking these comments are on a human basis,” said Schumer, who was visibly angry. “This is the first person who stuck his neck out for Donald Trump.”
Sessions, who was one of Trump’s earliest supporters during the 2016 presidential campaign, may have the greatest influence over his department of all of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries. He has aggressively pursued crackdowns on crime and illegal immigration, issues central to Trump’s “law and order” mantra.
But Trump even questioned Sessions’s loyalty, telling The Wall Street Journal he endorsed him in February 2016 because of large crowd sizes at his Alabama rallies and not true allegiance.
“He was a senator, he looks at 40,000 people and he probably says, ‘What do I have to lose?’ And he endorsed me. So it’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement,” Trump said.
Trump’s attacks threatened to put him at odds with his own base of supporters and top aides.
Chief strategist Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart News executive credited by many grassroots conservatives with shaping the president’s nationalist-populist message, deeply admires Sessions and considered him a potential presidential candidate before Trump got into the race.
Stephen Miller, Trump’s influential senior policy adviser and speechwriter, is a veteran of Sessions’s Senate office.
On Tuesday, the lead story on Breitbart News blasted Trump as a hypocrite on immigration. The story warned that the attacks against Sessions are “likely to fuel concerns from his base who see Sessions as the best hope to fulfill Trump’s immigration policies.”
“I would certainly like to see Sessions continue on as attorney general and the grassroots conservatives across the country, who helped elect Trump would also like to see him continue on, because he’s helping Trump keep his promises and achieve his vision,” said Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin.
Above all else, though, Trump cares about perceived loyalty. And he has grown increasingly frustrated with Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe.
Sessions decided to remove himself from the investigation in March after it was revealed that he held two undisclosed meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 campaign.
His deputy, Rod Rosenstein, eventually named former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel overseeing the probe into Russian interference in the presidential election and possible collusion with Trump’s campaign.
“Trump’s frustration with the special counsel is understandable and justified, but he shouldn’t direct his frustration at Sessions; it’s not his fault,” said former Attorney General Bill Barr. “Sessions had to recuse himself; he had no choice. The Justice Department regulations are clear.”
Some allies of the president see firing Sessions as a prelude to sacking Mueller and ending his probe into whether Trump’s associates colluded with Moscow’s election-meddling effort, which has grown more serious in recent weeks.
Mueller currently reports to Rosenstein, who has responsibility for the Russia investigation because of Sessions’s recusal. A new attorney general with no pre-existing conflicts of interest could technically take oversight of Mueller’s probe from Rosenstein and try to dismiss the special counsel for straying outside the bounds of the investigation.
If Sessions were to resign or be fired, Trump would have broad discretion to select a replacement attorney general.
“Obviously, the best choice would be someone who has a history free of political involvement and someone with impeccable professional credentials,” said Jonathan Turley, a legal scholar, professor at George Washington University Law School and a contributor to The Hill.
“Many of the people that would be on that list would likely decline in light of what happened to their predecessor,” Turley said. “So, you have this chilling prospect of the type of person who would want the position.”
There is also the possibility that Trump would try to select someone to replace Sessions during the August recess, meaning the candidate would be a “recess appointment” and thereby not subject to Senate confirmation. The recess appointment clause is designed to guarantee that there is no gap in government positions.
Democrats signaled on Tuesday that they would use procedural tools to block an effort by Trump to sidestep the normal confirmation process.
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