Sessions under fire from all sides
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s job security is in question after taking withering fire from fellow Republicans this week, including from two prominent House conservatives who called on him to resign.
Two leaders of the House Freedom Caucus, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), called on Sessions to step aside in an op-ed Friday, charging he has lost control of the Department of Justice and the FBI.
Sessions has also come under criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for his decision to rescind the Obama-era Cole memo, which gave states the space to legalize marijuana without fear of federal interference.
By withdrawing the memo, Sessions gave federal prosecutors more leeway to pursue cases against the legal marijuana industry, which is expanding rapidly in several states.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R), whose home state of Colorado is host to a booming legal cannabis industry, ripped Sessions on the Senate floor Thursday and accused him of breaking a personal pledge not to change the Obama-era policy.
“When you have Republicans calling for you to step down and you’re in a Republican administration just entering your second year, that’s trouble. He’s really on borrowed time,” said Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide.
“This is an attorney general who has been ridiculed by his own boss on Twitter,” he said, referring to President Trump. “At one point he didn’t have the confidence of his own boss and he’s losing the confidence of the Freedom Caucus and conservatives in the House and Senate.”
Trump reiterated his frustration with Sessions in a recent interview, again criticizing his decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“I thought it was certainly unnecessary, I thought it was a terrible thing,” Trump told The New York Times.
A new report this week revealed the lengths to which Trump went to keep Sessions from turning over the Russia probe to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
The president took the unusual step of sending White House counsel Don McGahn to lobby Sessions against recusal, according to the Times. Sessions told McGahn his mind was made up, saying he had been advised to do so by other officials in the Justice Department.
The recusal has become a sore spot in the relationship between Trump and Sessions. The president reportedly blames his attorney general for the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel, a move that was made by Rosenstein.
“There’s a feeling on the right that Rod Rosenstein is running the Justice Department, not Jeff Sessions. He’s not doing anything. He’s recused himself to the point that he can’t do his job anymore,” Darling said.
Sessions is still taking heat from the president’s allies over the decision.
Meadows and Jordan argued in an op-ed published in the Washington Examiner on Friday that the FBI investigation into Russian collusion has run amok.
“It would appear he has no control at all of the premier law enforcement agency in the world,” they wrote.
“If Sessions can’t address this issue immediately, then we have one final question needing an answer: When is it time for a new attorney general? Sadly, it seems the answer is now,” they concluded.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) in an interview Friday accused Sessions of betraying Trump by giving Mueller unfettered ability to investigate the president.
“He is a Cabinet-level piñata. He doesn’t seem to enjoy the confidence and trust of the president. He’s done a number of things on immigration and the most recent on marijuana that seem not to be playing well across the country,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.
“I’m sure there are days that Attorney General Sessions wishes he were back in the United States Senate,” he added.
A Trump administration official, however, said Friday that there’s little chance that criticism from Meadows, Jordan or other congressional Republicans would pressure Sessions to resign.
“If the president starts to criticize him again, that’s a different story,” the source said.
Sessions offered his resignation to Trump earlier this year but the president declined to accept it.
The official said Sessions has responded to Trump’s earlier criticism that the Department of Justice hadn’t done enough to investigate his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton.
The department has reopened an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State and launched a new probe into the Clinton Foundation.
“He has started to rebut the earlier criticism,” the source said of Sessions.
Ironically, Sessions’s biggest allies may be Democrats who don’t want him to step down as attorney general. They fear a new attorney general who is not bound by a recusal could bring the Russian investigation to a swift end.
Even though he opposed his nomination to head the Justice Department last year, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday that he wants Sessions to keep his job.
“My view now is very simple: nothing, nothing should ever interfere with the Mueller investigation,” he said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, which would hold hearings and vote on a new attorney general, told CNN, “I don’t think the case has been made for his resigning,” referring to Sessions.
“It would be problematic in a lot of ways,” he said.
Republican strategists say Sessions will probably stay in the job because his resignation or dismissal would cause a major uproar and spark accusations of political interference in the Russia investigation.
“Because of the prominence of the Russia probe it’s very hard to see him leaving the administration even though he has gone against the wishes of the White House in recusing himself,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “How are you going to get a new attorney general through Congress?”
The Senate Republican majority has shrunk to 51 seats, and there are several GOP senators who have been outspokenly critical of Trump, including Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.). That could make the confirmation process for a new attorney general exceedingly difficult.
“The biggest gripe against Sessions is his recusal,” O’Connell said.
“A lot of the other things that Sessions has done, particularly now that we have an investigation into the Clinton Foundation, I think that overall people are relatively happy with Sessions,” he said.
Politico reported Friday that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt — a former attorney general of Oklahoma — has expressed interest in replacing Sessions if he resigns.
Some GOP officials believe Trump could move Pruitt or another Senate-confirmed senior administration official into the attorney’s job temporarily, but Trump would spark a firestorm if he skipped the Department of Justice’s line of succession, which would call for Rosenstein to replace Sessions.
One Senate Republican parliamentary expert said the president could not unilaterally appoint someone to fill the attorney general’s job permanently and with full power without Senate confirmation.