WASHINGTON — In five months as attorney general, Jeff Sessions has pursued the staunchly conservative agenda that then-candidate Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail.
He has refocused the nation’s attention on violent crime; ordered a sweeping review of police reform agreements that punished troubled agencies; threatened so-called sanctuary cities for harboring illegal immigrants; and rolled back a series of Obama-era civil rights actions, including a Justice Department challenge to a controversial voter identification law in Texas.
Sessions has done virtually everything that Trump seemed to want, except one thing: protect the boss from an expanding investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 that already has wound its way to the Oval Office.
Days after announcing that he would not have have nominated Sessions to be the country’s chief law enforcement official had he known the attorney general would recuse himself from the Russia inquiry, Trump further isolated Sessions on Monday, describing him as “beleaguered” and publicly questioning why he was not pursuing an investigation into former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The president’s public condemnations of the attorney general, analysts say, raise questions about whether Sessions will be able to serve. “He’s in no-man’s land, right now,” said former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller, who served in the Obama administration. “I don’t see how he can continue. He is certainly weakened, and it would be hard to work on policy matters with the White House if the president doesn’t have confidence in you.”
What’s more, Trump’s willingness to undercut one of his earliest and staunchest supporters – even at the possible expense of his other law enforcement priorities – may mean he’s motivated by more than disappointment in a decision his attorney general made back in March. The president, analysts say, may be trying to squeeze Sessions as part of a broader strategy to take more direct control over the direction of the Russia inquiry.
“I think you have to ask the question of: Who benefits from Sessions’ removal?” said Jimmy Gurule, a former assistant attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. “And the answer is President Trump.”
Sessions’ removal, Gurule said, would allow Trump to pick an attorney general nominee with no conflicts with the ongoing Russia inquiry, which prompted Sessions’ recusal.
A new attorney general could wrest control of the investigation from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Justice Department’s inquiry into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russians who sought to influence the presidential election in favor of Trump by hacking Democrats.
By law, Trump cannot directly fire Mueller.
“Given President Trump’s stated concerns for the direction of Mueller’s investigation [to include the Trump family finances], you have to look at Sessions’ removal as part of an end game,” Gurule said.
Trump’s high-profile attacks on Sessions also come after news that Mueller is also investigating a controversial June 2016 meeting between a Kremlin-linked lawyer and Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Justice officials declined to comment Monday on Trump’s latest missive. And it was not immediately clear whether Sessions has communicated directly the president since Trump’s first expressed his displeasure last week in a pointed interview with the The New York Times. (Sessions was at the White House Monday for previously scheduled meetings, but White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said the president did not meet with the attorney general.)
The day after the interview was published, Sessions told reporters that he would continue to serve, as long as it was “appropriate.” And the White House said Trump still has confidence in his attorney general even though he disagrees with the decision to recuse himself on the Russia investigation.
Yet the political fire has only intensified since. John Dowd, Trump’s lead outside attorney handling Russia matters, said the president’s criticism of Sessions is justified.
“I’m ashamed of him [Sessions],” Dowd said in an interview with USA TODAY, adding that the attorney general’s recusal decision was “nuts.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported Friday that U.S. intercepts of communications involving Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak indicated that the ambassador told his superiors in Moscow that Sessions had discussed campaign-related matters with Kislyak during pre-election meetings with the then-Alabama senator.
Sessions, whose contacts with Kislyak prompted his recusal from the investigation, had previously denied discussing such matters with the ambassador. Trump referenced the report Saturday in a separate series of tweets, saying that the “intelligence leaks” were “illegal.”
But he did not directly refute the substance of the report, again appearing to leave Sessions vulnerable.
Now, Senate Democrats are requesting that Sessions return to the Judiciary Committee – before which, during his confirmation hearing, Sessions offered contradictory testimony about his contacts with Russian officials.
Whatever the president’s intention, analysts said that Trump’s criticism has severely damaged Sessions’ ability to lead a department whose mission is critical to carrying out Trump’s agenda – from immigration enforcement to the campaign against violent crime and the plague of opioid addiction.
“Anybody who works for Donald Trump has a very difficult, if not an impossible task,” said Bill Baxley, a former Alabama attorney general who knows Sessions from his time in Alabama, appearing to refer to Trump’s penchant for launching aggressive attacks even on those he considers allies. “I think his criticisms are unjustified, but it is not surprising that [Trump] acts like that.”
Gurule, now a University of Notre Dame law professor, said Sessions’ effectiveness at carrying out Trump’s priorities is likely to be diminished if he “continues to be attacked by the president who nominated him.”
“What all of this shows is that president does not respect the independence of the Department of Justice,” he said. “He sees that office [Justice] as an extension of his political operation. You can do that in Russia, but can’t in the U.S.”
William “Bill” Barr, who served as attorney general in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, said Sessions had “no choice” but to recuse himself and that he should actually be a model for the Trump administration as it wrestles with controversy after controversy.
Since he recused himself from the Russia investigation, Sessions has actually been free to focus on other priorities.
For instance, in May, with much of Washington still reeling from the abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, Sessions followed through on Trump’s campaign vow to crack down on violent crime when directed federal prosecutors to seek the most serious charges against suspects. It is a move that would result in severe prison sentences and is expected to reverse recent declines in the federal prison system.
“With his own work, Sessions has shown that the Russia investigation doesn’t have to disrupt the administration’s agenda,” Barr said. “The whole administration could learn from him. He’s getting things done, despite what’s going on around him.”
That idea was echoed by some Republicans in Congress. Seeking to encourage support for the attorney general, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, tweeted at the president a clear message: “RealDonaldTrump with Jeff Sessions at your side you are best positioned to get your agenda and #MAGA [Make America Great Again]!”
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— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) July 24, 2017