As President Trump continued his extraordinary public flogging of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, prominent figures in Congress and the conservative media began to rally around the embattled attorney general and warn Trump against firing him.
Trump kept up his criticism of his attorney general on Tuesday but notably ducked several opportunities to openly call for him to resign, saying in response to a reporter’s question that “time will tell” whether Sessions remains head of the Justice Department.
The day began with a pair of tweets from the president criticizing Sessions for a “VERY weak position” on pursuing leaks and Hillary Clinton — even though Trump himself said after the election that he didn’t think it would be wise to pursue an investigation of his Democratic opponent’s use of email while she was secretary of State.
Later, speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden, Trump repeated that he was unhappy with Sessions’ decision to step aside from supervising the investigation into Russian efforts to sway the 2016 election and wanted to see “much tougher” treatment of leaks. But he continued to evade questions about whether he’s planning to fire him.
“I’m very disappointed with the attorney general, but we’ll see what happens,” he said. “Time will tell. Time will tell.”
He also appeared to offer a new goal for Sessions to achieve to keep his job. “I want the attorney general to be much tougher on the leaks from intelligence agencies, which are leaking like rarely have they ever leaked before, at a very important level,” he said.
As Trump hesitated in pulling the trigger to fire Sessions, a growing chorus of the attorney general’s supporters said the president should keep Sessions on and stop undermining him in public.
“Jeff understands that we are a nation of laws, not men,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). In a statement, Graham added that Trump’s cheering on of a Clinton investigation was “highly inappropriate” and would “run away from the long-standing American tradition of separating the law from politics regardless of party.”
In his 20 years in the Senate, Sessions’ uncompromising opposition to legalization of immigrants in the country without authorization and to any efforts to ease criminal sentencing made him a favorite of many on the right wing of the Republican Party. He has pursued those policies with vigor since taking over the Justice Department.
“Sessions is Trump’s Good Housekeeping seal of approval, in a policy sense,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for restrictions on legal and illegal immigration. He said anti-immigration advocates are willing to forgive Trump’s deviations from the cause because of Sessions.
“I don’t think [Trump] understands this,” Krikorian said. “Politically speaking, Trump needs Sessions a lot more than Sessions needs Trump.”
Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state who worked on Trump’s transition team, praised Sessions for his integrity — and, notably, his loyalty to Trump.
“He is a huge asset to this administration,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that “I personally would strongly recommend against firing Jeff Sessions.”
“You know, loyalty is a two-way street,” Gingrich said in an interview on Fox News.
Trump, however, continued to make clear that he remains angry at Sessions, with his biggest problem being the attorney general’s decision to step aside from supervising the investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government to influence the election.
The president repeated Tuesday that he would never have appointed Sessions if he had known the attorney general would recuse himself, apparently blaming Sessions for his administration’s deepening troubles with the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Trump might have a problem getting rid of Mueller unless he finds another attorney general. The law says that only the attorney general can fire a special counsel. Because of Sessions’ recusal, the department’s No. 2 official, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, is the acting attorney general for any matters related to the investigation. He has said that he would not obey an order from Trump to fire Mueller unless he thought there was good cause.
Trump has been complaining about members of Mueller’s staff giving campaign contributions to Clinton, but Rosenstein has told Congress that he didn’t think that was enough of a reason to remove the special counsel.
If Trump were to nominate a new attorney general, that person would face Senate confirmation hearings that probably would be dominated by demands for assurances about Mueller’s independence. And on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned that Democrats would block the alternative route of Trump appointing an attorney general during Congress’ August recess, a move he said would spark a “constitutional crisis.”
“Let me state for the record now before this scheme gains wings. Democrats would never go along with the recess appointment,” he said, warning that his party would “use every single one” of its parliamentary tools to block such a move.
Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump last year, an important boost to the campaign at a time when most of the Washington political class was shunning the outsider candidate.
But in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Trump said that he didn’t believe he owed Sessions anything and that he thought Sessions was more interested in the big crowd at a Trump rally in his home state of Alabama.
“But he was a senator, he looks at 40,000 people and probably says, ‘What do I have to lose?’” Trump said. “So it’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement.” Although the Trump campaign claimed a crowd of 40,000 at the time, officials have said since that the rally, though huge for a campaign event, was not that big, perhaps half that size.
Sessions’ policies have dismayed civil libertarians and advocates of less restrictive sentencing laws, as he has moved to quickly unravel Obama administration initiatives aimed at reducing the prison population.
On immigration, Sessions has instructed federal prosecutors to be more aggressive about prosecuting border crossers, and he has traveled the country speaking out against so-called sanctuary cities that don’t cooperate with immigration enforcement.
Late Tuesday afternoon, he announced new rules to make sure that some policing grants go only to cities and states that agree to cooperate with agents from the Department of Homeland Security.
Staff writers Lisa Mascaro and Noah Bierman contributed to this report.