The Memo: Trump’s feud with Sessions grows toxic

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President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are stuck in a dysfunctional relationship — and there looks to be no escape in sight.

Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning that he wished he had chosen someone else to lead the Department of Justice (DOJ). 

It was the starkest statement yet of Trump’s displeasure with his attorney general, an early supporter of his 2016 campaign he now blames for the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. 

“There is no relationship between the president and Sessions,” one Republican strategist close to the White House told The Hill. “That’s because Trump values his friendships based on loyalty and obedience — and Sessions is perceived as neither in his current position.”

The strategist argued that this view was “very unfair” to the attorney general but added that it looked like Sessions “has decided to stick it out.”

Speculation about Sessions’s future in the administration has been rife for more than a year. 

Sessions was reported in June 2017 to have offered his resignation “in recent weeks” — an offer that Trump apparently turned down. But there have been no similar revelations this year, suggesting that Sessions intends to stay in his position absent an outright firing.

Such a dismissal would be hugely problematic for Trump, since it would be guaranteed to intensify allegations of obstruction of justice. 

Complicating the calculus further, some Republican senators — many of whom are former colleagues of Sessions, who represented Alabama in the upper chamber for 20 years — are said to have made it known that they would be reluctant to confirm any replacement for Sessions if he were ousted. 

Trump could theoretically make a recess appointment, but even that could attract opposition from within his own party. Last summer, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said on the Senate floor that Trump should “forget about it.” 

That leaves everything in stalemate. 

“I would think the attorney general is fed up with being berated in the press because it undermines his authority and his ability to lead the department,” said Mark Corallo, who served as the spokesman for Trump’s legal team for approximately two months last year. 

Corallo was also DOJ communications director during the administration of President George W. Bush, under Attorney General John Ashcroft. 

“At some point, either the attorney general ought to resign — or the president ought to fire him if he is dissatisfied,” Corallo added. “That is what gentlemen do. And I think we could use some decorum in our public [life] these days.”

So far, however, the impasse looks likely to continue.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivered little defense of Sessions when she was asked about him at Wednesday’s media briefing.

“Look, the president has made his viewpoint very clearly known, and I don’t have any personnel announcements at this point,” Sanders said. 

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), a current member of Trump’s legal team, seemed to indicate some measure of safety for Sessions when he spoke to reporters in the White House driveway later on Wednesday. 

Referring to Trump, Sessions and the Mueller probe, Giuliani said, “He’s not gonna fire him before this is over.”

During the same appearance, however, Giuliani seemed to place some caveats on that assertion. 

At one point, he said the president “goes back and forth on Jeff.” 

At another, he said: “Well, I don’t think anybody in the Cabinet in any administration is ever secure. Something totally different can go wrong. But I don’t think the president is going to touch him, Mueller, or [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein. And I think in the long run, it will be worked out.” 

Still, the back and forth over Sessions leaves seasoned legal figures shaking their heads. 

Tensions between attorneys general and presidents are not unheard-of; President Clinton and Janet Reno, for example, had a frosty relationship. But the kind of explicit condemnation that has been delivered by Trump toward Sessions has no parallel.

“The president’s tweets that are attacking his own attorney general — I’m just dumbfounded,” said Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney who has represented clients from both major parties. “It is so far out of the norm as to leave one speechless.”

Such a personalized and aggressive approach, Zaid added, was “unprecedented beyond this administration — but commonplace for Donald Trump, that’s for sure.” 

Another strand to the unusual relationship was revealed in a New York Times story published Tuesday evening. The report stated Trump had urged Sessions, during a tense meeting at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in March 2017, to reverse his earlier decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe. Sessions refused.

The request had not been previously reported, and according to the Times, Mueller is investigating it — along with “the president’s public and private attacks on Mr. Sessions and efforts to get him to resign.”

The fact that Mueller’s probe is burrowing further into Trump’s dealings with Sessions is likely to only heighten the president’s fury. 

He has repeatedly derided the probe as a “witch hunt” and has downplayed accusations of obstruction. “There is no [obstruction], it’s called Fighting Back,” he tweeted earlier this month. 

Meanwhile, the publication of the New York Times story — and its account of a meeting that took place 14 months ago — has set off another round of intrigue about who could have leaked the details. 

One conservative strategist who declined to be named suggested that the story could work to the potential advantage of Rosenstein, who has found himself in Trump’s crosshairs in recent weeks.

“Someone decided, ‘OK, let’s leak this.’ And whoever writes the story is going to have to include past tensions between Trump and Sessions,” this strategist said. “You might get a [Trump] tweet out of it, and then … all of a sudden the focus is off of Rosenstein.” 

There is widespread sympathy for Sessions’s predicament in Washington. 

Corallo called him “an honorable man in a difficult position who has performed as well as could be expected.”

Most insiders think he is determined to defend the DOJ, as he sees it, from Trump’s efforts to oust him. But with little realistic hope of repairing his relationship with the president, there is also no clear way out of the morass.

Late on Wednesday evening, Trump took to Twitter to hit Sessions yet again. This time he quoted the words of a legal ally, former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova.

Sessions’s recusal, Trump quoted diGenova as saying, amounted to “an unforced betrayal of the President of the United States.”

“It looks like a stalemate until somebody blinks,” Zaid said of the deepening feud. “It depends on how high a threshold Sessions has for being attacked. He is in a hostile work environment. How much can you stomach that?”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Ben Sasse Donald Trump Donald Trump Jeff Sessions Jeff Sessions Mark Corallo Robert Mueller Russia Investigation Special Counsel Robert Mueller

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