Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions confronted increasing questions about his future as he faced fresh public slaps from his boss, President Trump, and new calls to testify about his conversations with the Russian ambassador last year.
Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump, was a strong influence during the campaign. A longtime advocate for reduced immigration, both legal and illegal, Sessions helped shape Trump’s aggressive anti-immigration policies. He has also moved quickly to steer the Justice Department back to tough anti-crime and drug policies that Trump favors.
None of that seems to have saved him from the president’s ire.
This year, Sessions announced that he would step aside from overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and any possible cooperation by people associated with the Trump campaign.
Sessions acted on advice from the department’s ethics lawyers, who said he should not play a role in an investigation involving a campaign on which he worked. But in a startling interview with the New York Times last week, Trump said Sessions’ decision to recuse was “very unfair to the president,” and the president made it clear that he blamed Sessions for the widening special counsel investigation he now faces.
Since then, things have gotten worse for the attorney general.
Tuesday morning, Trump fired a new salvo on Twitter, accusing his attorney general of being “very weak” because he has not sought to prosecute Trump’s defeated rival from last year’s campaign, Hillary Clinton.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2017
That message marked the second day in a row that Trump had pursued the issue. On Monday morning, Trump tweeted that Sessions was “beleaguered” and questioned why the Justice Department wasn’t doing more to investigate Clinton’s dealings with Russia.
The statements were remarkable both for undermining the attorney general Trump appointed and also for openly calling for the prosecution of a political rival — something without precedent for a U.S. president.
Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, did nothing to allay doubts about Sessions’ future, refusing to say in an interview Monday whether Trump wanted him to resign and on Tuesday morning saying that he probably did.
“They need to sit down face to face and have a reconciliation and a discussion of the future,” he said in Monday’s interview with CNN. “They need to speak and determine what the future of the relationship looks like.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also offered no reassurances.
“I think the president has been extremely clear about his position,” she told reporters. “He’s very disappointed that Atty. Gen. Sessions chose to recuse himself.”
If Trump seems to be trying to tweet Sessions out of a job, Sessions seems determined to dig in and make the president fire him — at least for the time being.
Last week, Sessions said he had no plans to step down, saying he loved his job and would stay as long as it was “appropriate.”
“I’m totally confident we can continue to run this office in an effective way,” he said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Monday that hasn’t changed. She had no comment on Scaramucci’s interview or on Trump’s “beleaguered” comment.
The strange soap opera has begun to draw criticism from some Republicans, who say Trump should take Sessions to the woodshed in private.
“To do this in public is what I don’t understand,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said.
Some conservative admirers of Sessions have also come to his defense, which might make Trump reluctant to actually fire the attorney general.
Another consideration for Trump is that a new nominee to head the Justice Department might have difficulty winning confirmation, especially if Republican senators demanded assurances that the nominee would not move against the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
Sessions visited the White House on Monday, sparking a quick flurry of speculation that he was about to resign or be fired.
But Flores said Sessions was there for a standing Monday lunch meeting with White House Counsel Donald McGahn. The attorney general had a discussion with McGahn and Tom Price, the Health and Human Services secretary, she said.
She and Sanders said Sessions did not see Trump. No meeting with the president has been scheduled, Flores said. The two apparently have not spoken since Trump’s interview became public Wednesday.
Responding to a shouted question about Sessions at a photo opportunity on Monday, Trump smirked and rolled his eyes.
Speculation on who could replace Sessions has already begun. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, another stalwart Trump supporter and a former federal prosecutor, brushed aside a report that he was under consideration.
Giuliani told CNN that Sessions “made the right decision under the rules of the Justice Department” when he recused himself from supervising the Russia inquiry.
Also on Monday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Sessions needs to appear before the committee to answer new questions about his contacts with the then-Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
The Washington Post reported Friday that intelligence agencies had overheard Kislyak reporting to associates in Russia that he and Sessions had substantive conversations about campaign-related issues, contradicting Sessions’ descriptions of their conversations as casual and incidental to the campaign.
In a letter to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee chairman, Feinstein said it would be “a grave breach of trust” if Sessions gave misleading information in his written answers, and called on Grassley to summon Sessions for another public hearing.
A spokesman for Grassley said the chairman wants to hold an oversight hearing in the fall after other top Justice officials have been confirmed.
Also on Monday, the Congressional Black Caucus, which has long criticized Sessions, called on him to resign, saying he is “unfit to serve as the top law enforcement officer in the nation.”
Staff writer Lauren Rosenblatt contributed to this report.
7:45 a.m. July 25: This article was updated with President Trump’s early-morning tweets and comments from the White House communications director.
This article was originally published July 24 at 4:50 p.m.