Trump attack puts Sessions in bind

Trump attack puts Sessions in bind
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Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Health Care: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated | Senate rejects bill to permanently ban federal funds for abortion | Women's March to lobby for 'Medicare for All' Acting AG Whitaker's wife defends him in lengthy email to journalist Watchdog: Thousands more migrant children separated from parents than previously known MORE is in a bind following public criticism from President Trump of his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

Trump’s scathing criticism in an interview with The New York Times immediately sparked new questions about whether the nation’s top cop, one of the president’s earliest supporters, enjoys his confidence and support.

Sessions on Thursday made it clear he has no plans to leave his post, and several Republican lawmakers rushed to his defense.

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“I think Jeff Sessions has been and will continue to be an excellent attorney general,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), an early Trump supporter who says he backed Sessions's decision to recuse himself. “I don’t expect Jeff Sessions to resign, I would not want him to resign.”

Republicans on and off Capitol Hill marveled at the spectacle of Trump criticizing his own attorney general — and a politician seen as one of his closest allies.

“They need to put this behind them,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, a contributor to The Hill, who added that there is no benefit to Trump’s criticism of Sessions.

John Wood, a former U.S. attorney and chief of staff for the Department of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration, said Sessions could continue to serve despite the criticism. But he said Trump’s comments likely hurt Sessions’s standing and could make it harder for him to lead the department.

“I don’t think it is to the point where Sessions has lost the ability to run the department,” he said.

Trump told The New York Times in a Wednesday interview that he would not have chosen Sessions to serve as attorney general had he known he would recuse himself.

“How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you,'" Trump told the Times.

Trump’s comments also provided ammunition for critics who say he wants to squash the work of special counsel Robert Mueller — the man now leading the investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election, including any possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Moscow.

Trump warned Mueller against investigating the Trump family’s finances beyond the scope of the probe into ties between his administration and Russia.

“I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia,” Trump told the Times.

Mueller was appointed to his position by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey.

Rosenstein is now the top Justice official overseeing Mueller’s work.

If Trump had a different attorney general, it would be easier to remove Mueller, since a Sessions successor would take over from Rosenstein.

Members of Congress might then appoint their own counsel to lead an outside investigation, however.

Sessions expressed confidence he could carry out the mission of the Justice Department during remarks at a Thursday press conference.

“I have the honor of serving as attorney general. It's something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself,” Sessions said. “We love this job, we love this department, and I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate.”

Sessions ducked question about how he could continue in his role without the confidence of the president.

“We’re serving right now. The work we’re doing today is the kind of work that we intend to continue,” the attorney general said. “I'm totally confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way.”

The White House on Thursday said Trump has confidence in Sessions, but spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders added that he is “disappointed” with Sessions’s decision to recuse himself.

If Sessions did step down, Rosenstein would become attorney general until the Senate confirmed a new replacement. Trump also criticized Rosenstein in the interview with The Times, suggestion he was probably a Democrat because he was from Baltimore. Rosenstein is from Philadelphia but was previously the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland.

Mackowiak said if Sessions was pushed out, it would likely be a “difficult situation.” Trump would need to find and vet a new attorney general, and the confirmation process would eat up precious time for an administration that’s without a signature legislative achievement.

Wood said he doesn’t think it will be difficult to find a new person for the position because it’s a hard job for anybody to pass up. But to make a quick change would be “disruptive” to the Justice Department, he said.

If Trump decided to make a change simply because he disagrees with Sessions’s recusal decision, Wood said, that “could undermine the professionalism” of the department.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, opposed Sessions’s nomination but said he “shouldn’t be forced to resign for following ethical rules — especially if he’ll be replaced by a Trump lackey.”

“Ultimately, this is about the rule of law, not Sessions. Protecting Mueller probe's independence & integrity is the top priority,” Blumenthal tweeted.