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Tension between Trump, Justice reaches pivotal point
For more than a year, Trump has chided Sessions for his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
But the president's decision this week to escalate his criticism prompted the attorney general to issue a rare public rebuke, triggering fears that Trump might take drastic steps to protect himself from fast-encroaching criminal probes emanating from the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Sources close to the White House and Justice Department said they sensed the dynamic shift after former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen this week implicated the president in an illegal hush-money scheme shortly before the 2016 election.
DOJ officials have grown used to Trump's attacks on Twitter, but Ian Prior, who until recently served as a spokesman under Sessions, said the highly public nature of the president's latest barb prompted the attorney general to "stand up" for the rank-and-file employees he leads.
"The tweets are one thing, they're kind of in their own universe," Prior told The Hill. "When it's an interview on national television questioning the effectiveness or integrity of the Department of Justice, it's a different animal altogether."
Trump lashed out at Sessions in a Fox News interview that aired Thursday, saying he tapped the former Alabama senator for the job only because he "felt loyalty" for Sessions's support in 2016. He also blamed the attorney general for failing to take control of "corruption" at the Justice Department.
Sessions responded through a spokesperson that he "will not be improperly influenced" by political pressure, a clear shot at the president.
Trump on Friday doubled down on his criticism, urging Sessions to investigate a slew of former law enforcement officials and Democrats whom Trump accused of wrongdoing.
"Come on Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting!" the president tweeted.
Advisers inside and outside the West Wing acknowledge that Trump has escalated his fight with Sessions and the Justice Department, and that his anger is likely to pique amid further developments in the Cohen case and special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.
"He feels the noose tightening, and I think that has certainly spurred some of this," a former Trump White House official said of the president's attitude. "He punched, [Sessions] punched back and he's going to punch back again because he's a counterpuncher and he always has to have the last word. Hence the tweets this morning."
The legal straits appear to be growing more dire for the president, as Trump's corporate chief financial officer and the head of the National Enquirer's parent company have reportedly received immunity to speak with federal prosecutors investigating payments administered during the 2016 campaign.
Other Trump associates have found themselves in the crosshairs of law enforcement, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was convicted Tuesday on eight felony counts in a major court victory for Mueller's investigation.
With Trump's back now firmly against the wall, speculation is growing that the president could fire Sessions after the midterm elections in a bid to rein in the investigations.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who frequently golfs with Trump, both raised the possibility this week of replacing Sessions, reversing their prior insistence that the Senate would not confirm another attorney general while the Russia probes progress.
"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," said Graham, who added Trump is entitled to an attorney general "he has faith in."
But other key GOP senators strongly urged the president to avoid such a drastic move, predicting it would spark a political firestorm.
"It would be bad for the president, it would be bad for the Department of Justice for him to be forced out under these circumstances," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Sessions is said to be unmoved by the chatter. A source familiar with his thinking said the attorney general will stay in his post until Trump tells him to leave.
Others also said it is unlikely that Sessions would step down without being asked to resign.
"I do think Jeff Sessions is passionate about his work and, as long as he feels he can be a decent leader for the Department of Justice, he will stay," said Matthew Heiman, a former Justice Department official during the George W. Bush administration.
Heiman and others said it's far from certain that Trump will fire Sessions, pointing out that their feud has reached a boiling point before, followed by a de-escalation.
Trump took aim at Sessions in February for asking the department's inspector general to examine allegations of surveillance abuse, suggesting the watchdog was "an Obama guy." Sessions stood firm in his decision and said the DOJ "will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner."
The president could also face headwinds if he were to appoint a successor to Sessions.
His nominee would almost certainly face a brutal confirmation battle in the Senate and likely be asked to affirm the independence of the Mueller probe as well as the federal investigation into Cohen's activities.
Some Trump allies argue the president could circumvent the confirmation process by filling the post through the Vacancies Act, which would allow Trump to unilaterally install an acting attorney general for at least 210 days, enough time for the appointee to shut down the investigations.
But there could be legal roadblocks. The law allows Trump to name an acting DOJ chief only if Sessions "dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office," and the replacement must already be confirmed to another post by the Senate.
Regardless of whether Sessions is fired, the feud has raised questions about his ability to lead the Justice Department, in addition to placing pressure on other top-level officials who are stuck between their direct boss and the president who nominated them.
"In terms of morale, it probably is more significant for the senior people at Department of Justice who are political appointees," said Heiman. "It is awkward for them."
But Trump's attacks won't have the same effect on rank-and-file employees at DOJ and the FBI, former officials say.
"For many of those folks, it will just redouble their drive to get to the right result and make the agencies appear as they are doing what they should be doing: They're preserving the rule of law," said Ron Hosko, a former FBI assistant director. "They see the president's words as what they are - and that's a lot of saber rattling."
The president's decision to take aim at routine Justice Department practices could further erode its standing in the eyes of Republicans at a time when it's prosecuting two GOP congressmen and several Trump associates.
In the Fox interview, Trump blasted the practice of "flipping," a common tactic used by prosecutors to recruit cooperating witnesses. His remarks drew criticism from across the political spectrum.
"There are so many criminal convictions based on someone with knowledge of the crime who turns evidence," said Heiman. "That's the way crimes in this country have been prosecuted forever. That's how the Mafia was taken down. That's how gangs are taken down."
Others fear Trump's efforts to scandalize the Justice Department probes, or float pardons for those who are convicted, could undermine their credibility with a significant portion of the American public.
"Trump has his core supporters. Many in that same core are going to buy into the notion that some of what's gone on in the last year or more has been illegitimate," said Hosko.