In a Cabinet beset by rapid turnover, one survivor stands out: Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability Stanford professors ask DOJ to stop looking for Chinese spies at universities in US Overnight Energy & Environment — Democrats detail clean electricity program MORE.
Sessions has managed to keep his job, no small feat considering he has become one of President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE's favorite punching bags over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
But for all of Trump’s rebukes against an attorney general he has described as “beleaguered,” he knows firing Sessions would have dire political consequences.
“That is first and foremost what has driven the personnel situation,” said one White House official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the situation. “The president understands the media firestorm and political implications of a move at the top of [the Justice Department].”
Trump and Sessions are not known to speak frequently, but they did see each other this week for a meeting on election security, according to the White House.
The Justice Department declined to comment for this story.
It is not just political convenience that has saved Sessions’s job, according to his allies.
They say the attorney general has done a good job of staying focused on policy work while keeping a low public profile.
The former GOP senator from Alabama was one of Trump’s earliest campaign backers and shares the president's hard-line approach on immigration.
Sessions has made a series of announcements regarding crackdowns on criminal gangs like MS-13 and stopping illegal border crossings, including the so-called migrant caravan — all issues that Trump cares about deeply.
Trump raved to West Wing staff about a speech Sessions gave in March in which he chastised California officials over sanctuary cities, according to a White House official.
In the heated address, which was carried live on cable television, Sessions accused Golden State officials of being “radical extremists” and supporting “open borders.”
Firing Sessions would surely catch the attention of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE, who reportedly wants to ask Trump in a potential interview about his attacks on the attorney general over his recusal from the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election. Trump has called Sessions’s decision a “terrible mistake” that made him reconsider choosing him as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Trump’s comments, or actions, with regard to Sessions could be used to build a case that the president obstructed justice in the Russia probe.
Trump has never forgiven Sessions for recusing himself, and sources warned the mercurial president could get rid of his attorney general at any time, despite the possible repercussions.
“His tweets are very real,” the official said of Trump. “You’re not going to get a ton of ‘full confidence in Jeff Sessions’ from the podium. You’re going to get a lot of ‘we have no personnel announcements.’”
But when Trump does grow frustrated with Sessions over the Russia probe, White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE has reminded the president about how the attorney general has helped him accomplish his agenda, which also includes going after opioid manufacturers and backing local law enforcement.
“Even as the president works through his frustration with Mueller, the bottom line is he understands Jeff has been one of his appointees in carrying out the policy promises the president made during the campaign,” said Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state who served on Trump’s transition team and voter-fraud commission.
Behind the scenes, a group of vocal conservative activists have been making the case to the White House to keep Sessions.
Blackwell was one of roughly 100 prominent conservatives who signed on to a letter voicing support for Sessions last summer, a time when tensions with Trump reached a boiling point.
Since then, they have taken to periodically talking up Sessions to West Wing officials who speak to Trump.
“In politics you have show horses and workhorses, and he is a workhorse,” Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, said of Sessions. “He is going a good job in so many areas … I’ve clearly communicated that to [Trump’s] key staff multiple times.”
Others have recently pointed out that Sessions has avoided the types of ethics scandals that have doomed other Cabinet secretaries.
The New York Times reported that Sessions on a daily basis buys a $5.29 turkey sandwich for lunch from the Justice Department cafeteria, evidence he eschews the big-spending ways of some of his colleagues.
The praise campaign has not been entirely convincing to Trump, who views Sessions’s policy achievements and conduct as “secondary” to Russia-related matters, according to the White House official.
And Sessions’s role in the criminal investigation has returned to the spotlight, which could trigger a new round of speculation about his future.
Rudy Giuliani, who recently joined the president's legal team, implored Sessions to intervene in the Michael Cohen case by putting federal officials involved “under investigation.”
“I am waiting for the attorney general to step in, in his role as defender of justice,” the former New York City mayor told The Hill on Thursday, reacting to an incorrect report about a wiretap on Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney. Federal investigators have been monitoring Cohen’s calls but were not recording their content, according to a corrected report by NBC News.
Sessions weeks before rebuffed demands for a second special counsel to probe conservative allegations of misconduct at the Justice Department, a decision that disappointed Trump allies in Congress.
Serving as the nation’s top law enforcement official is a lifelong dream for Sessions, a former U.S. attorney and Alabama attorney general. It is his best opportunity to fulfill his goal of imposing his law-and-order policy agenda.
That means Sessions has been willing absorb the verbal fusillade from Trump, who has blasted him on Twitter as “weak” and reportedly calls him “Mr. Magoo” behind closed doors.
“He loves that job and loves being in that job,” said Matthew Heiman, a former Justice Department official during the George W. Bush administration. “As long as he feels he can be an effective and good steward, he’s going to stay there.”
Blackwell said Sessions “doesn’t frustrate as easily as some upstart might” in the face of “incoming fire.”
But Sessions has not taken every barb lying down. He reportedly submitted a resignation letter last year after Trump called him an “idiot” for recusing himself from the Russia probe. The president turned him down.
Sessions responded publicly after Trump labeled him “DISGRACEFUL” on Twitter over his handling of alleged surveillance abuses related to the 2016 campaign.
The attorney general said in a statement that the Justice Department “initiated the appropriate process” to look into the complaints and pledged to respond “fully and fairly.”
“As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution,” Sessions said.