Attorney General Jeff Sessions is collecting a flood of support as President Donald Trump amps up his bullying campaign, with even some of Sessions’ fiercest critics offering a simple defense — he’s just doing his job.
Trump has repeatedly attacked Sessions for recusing himself from the FBI’s Russia probe, while his new White House communications director on Tuesday said Sessions is not enough of a “hockey goalie for the president.”
But Democratic and Republican legal luminaries alike say that Sessions had no other option than to step aside from the probe and that it’s not the job of the attorney general to protect the president.
Congressional Republicans such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, conservative activists including former Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint and the media outlet National Review have rallied to Sessions’ defense in the hours since Trump issued a series of blistering tweets critical of his “beleaguered” attorney general. Breitbart, the conservative news outlet once led by White House adviser Steve Bannon, published a story Tuesday saying Trump’s “own hypocrisy” was being exposed for attacking Sessions over not pursuing a criminal case against Hillary Clinton when Trump also has backed away from that campaign position.
“I don’t think it’s the right thing to do and I don’t think it’s fair either,” C. Boyden Gray, the former George H.W. Bush White House counsel, said in an interview Tuesday when asked about Trump’s public humiliation of Sessions.
In an interview with the morning show News One Now, former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder made clear that while he disagreed with pretty much every one of Sessions’ policy moves, he nonetheless empathized with his successor for trying to keep DOJ independent of the White House.
“I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s like to have a president say the kinds of things that I’ve seen President Trump say about Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” Holder said. “I just can’t understand it. I disagree with him vehemently about some of the policy that he’s done, but I feel for him personally for the situation he finds himself in.”
The outrage could backfire on Trump. One Sessions ally expressed surprise at how far Trump has taken his attacks: “The base of the Trump movement probably knew Jeff Sessions before they knew Donald Trump.”
Whether any of it makes any difference in saving Sessions’ job remains to be seen. A senior White House official said Trump seemed to get more frustrated each day, not less. Another White House staffer said advisers are cautioning the president not to fire Sessions.
Still, Trump on Tuesday gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal downplaying the former Alabama senator’s early endorsement of his presidential bid and leaving open the question of whether he’d be fired.
“It’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement,” Trump told the newspaper.
The president kept up the blame game against Sessions later Tuesday during a White House Rose Garden press conference, questioning the attorney general over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation that led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He also said Sessions wasn’t aggressive enough about a series of media leaks that the president blamed on his own intelligence agencies.
“I’m very disappointed with the attorney general, but we will see what happens,” Trump said when asked whether Sessions would stay in his job. “Time will tell. Time will tell.”
Several former Justice Department officials and sources steeped in the rules for criminal investigations said Sessions followed department guidelines in March by withdrawing from the Russia investigation because of his close proximity to the Trump 2016 campaign, which is now being probed for potential collusion.
What’s more, the sources noted it was Trump himself who prompted Mueller’s appointment by firing FBI Director James Comey.
”I don’t think anyone ever sat down and told the president, look, this is the way things typically work. He could choose to ignore it, but I don’t think he quite understands it. Or he just doesn’t care,” said a former senior Justice Department official from the George W. Bush administration.
As Trump maintains his withering public criticism of one of his most recognized Cabinet members, he risks both short-term and long-term consequences by crossing into territory that a president isn’t supposed to enter when it comes to an active criminal investigation.
Perhaps most dramatically, sending Sessions to an early exit is widely seen as a move toward shutting down Mueller’s investigation outright. That would be an explosive step — even House Speaker Paul Ryan has urged the president to leave Mueller alone — and it could have broader implications for a Republican administration that’s struggled from the start to enact its policy agenda and maintain a coherent message.
“We’d have a crisis on our hands,” former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti said in an interview when asked about the potential ousting of both Sessions and Mueller.
“It creates the specter that the president is above the law and can undermine our ordinary processes of investigation, prosecution and ultimately holding people accountable for their own actions,” he added.
Even if Trump doesn’t fire him, the poor treatment of Sessions could have immediate consequences — Sessions, after all, remains popular with prominent social conservatives and groups like the Federalist Society, which Trump has leaned on for everything from Supreme Court nominee suggestions to support for the ethics arrangement he established for his businesses.
“These are some of the people who the president needs in some way or form for his ability to function in Washington,” said the former DOJ staffer, who served under Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Trump’s Sessions slams also could undermine his administration’s ability to staff up the DOJ. While Brian Benczkowski, who served as Sessions’ staff director at the Senate Judiciary Committee, had his confirmation hearing to lead the DOJ’s criminal division Tuesday, many more vacancies remain.
“There are a lot of empty seats over there,” said the former Bush official. “If they thought it was hard finding people to take jobs a month ago in key positions or key departments at DOJ, imagine what it’s going to look like when prospective nominees are seeing their potential leader being shown the door.”
The president’s frustration with Sessions also has drawn criticism because it seems to misinterpret the Justice Department’s core mission. Anthony Scaramucci, who this week started as the White House communications director, told the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday that an attorney general should serve as a “hockey goalie for the president” and noted that Trump and Sessions didn’t share that dynamic.
While attorneys general and presidents are often aligned on policy matters — say, emphasizing drug cases or immigration reforms — that’s much different than an active criminal investigation involving the president’s own campaign.
“He doesn’t seem to understand the political independence when it comes to criminal investigations,” said Asha Rangappa, an associate dean at Yale Law School and a former special agent in the Counterintelligence Division of the FBI.
Holder, the former attorney general, said that while he and President Barack Obama “shared a worldview,” there remained a vital separation between the White House and the DOJ.
“He supported the Justice Department when that was appropriate, he also understood there were times that the attorney general had to act independently — he respected that,” Holder said.
Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and Senate attorney during the investigation into President Bill Clinton’s Whitewater land deals, said Trump was crossing a clear line with his criticism of Sessions.
“I have not seen any indication of a normal appreciation of the functioning of government coming from the president of the United States as it regards to the DOJ and the level of independence that the department has struggled so hard over the years to maintain,” Ben-Veniste said.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.
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