By John Solomon and Buck Sexton
President Trump in an Oval Office interview with Hill.TV launched one of his most ferocious broadsides to date against Jeff Sessions, suggesting the attorney general was essentially AWOL and performing badly on a variety of issues.
“I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad,” Trump told Hill.TV in an extensive and freewheeling interview Tuesday from the Oval Office.
The president has long excoriated Sessions for his March 2017 decision to recuse himself from the Russia collusion investigation. But on Tuesday he suggested he is frustrated by Sessions’s performance on far more than that.
“I’m not happy at the border, I’m not happy with numerous things, not just this,” he said.
Trump suggested he had a personal blind spot when it came to nominating Sessions as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
“I’m so sad over Jeff Sessions because he came to me. He was the first senator that endorsed me. And he wanted to be attorney general, and I didn’t see it,” he said.
“And then he went through the nominating process and he did very poorly. I mean, he was mixed up and confused, and people that worked with him for, you know, a long time in the Senate were not nice to him, but he was giving very confusing answers. Answers that should have been easily answered. And that was a rough time for him.”
Sessions recused himself under pressure from congressional Democrats and after some Republicans said he should not take part in overseeing the Russian investigation at Justice. During his confirmation hearings, he failed to mention two meetings with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.
In announcing his recusal, Sessions said that he had consulted with Justice Department officials over the decision and that he had not meant to mislead members of the Senate over the meetings.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein became the lead Justice official on the Russia investigation because of the Sessions recusal. Rosenstein also appointed special counsel Robert Mueller after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017.
The president suggested Sessions’s experience going through the nominating process in the Senate may have impacted his performance as attorney general.
“He gets in and probably because of the experience that he had going through the nominating when somebody asked him the first question about Hillary Clinton or something he said ‘I recuse myself, I recuse myself,’” Trump said.
“And now it turned out he didn’t have to recuse himself. Actually, the FBI reported shortly thereafter any reason for him to recuse himself. And it’s very sad what happened.”
The FBI in an early 2017 email to a Sessions aide, made public last December, concluded that Sessions did not need to reveal contacts with foreign government officials that were made in the course of his work as a senator.
“I recused myself not because of any asserted wrongdoing on my part during the campaign,” Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee last April. “But because a Department of Justice regulation, 28 CFR 45.2, required it.”
Trump’s broader criticisms of Sessions may be a surprise to some lawmakers and other observers given the attorney general’s efforts to impose tougher policies on immigration. Sessions has been credited in conservative quarters for his handling of policy issues even as he has been lambasted by some on the right over the Russian probe.
At the same time, speculation that Trump could decide to fire Sessions has been growing.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who speaks frequently with Trump, in August said the president deserved to have an attorney general he had faith in.
“The president’s entitled to having an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that is qualified for the job, and I think there will come a time sooner rather than later where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice. Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn’t have the confidence of the president,” Graham said.
Trump demurred on whether he might one day fire the attorney general.
“We’ll see what happens. A lot of people have asked me to do that. And I guess I study history, and I say I just want to leave things alone, but it was very unfair what he did,” he said, referring to the recusal decision.
“And my worst enemies, I mean, people that, you know, are on the other side of me in a lot of ways, including politically, have said that was a very unfair thing he did.”
He concluded: “We’ll see how it goes with Jeff. I’m very disappointed in Jeff. Very disappointed.”