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Trump attack on Sessions may point to his departure

Trump attack on Sessions may point to his departure
© Anna Moneymaker

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East MORE has offered his most scathing attack on his attorney general to date, a move that could undermine Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDepartment of Justice right to go after Hezbollah Sessions defends media following disappearance of Saudi journalist Trump goes on 12-tweet Twitter tirade MORE’s authority and accelerate his departure from the administration.

Trump delivered a forceful criticism of Sessions during an Oval Office interview with Hill.TV on Tuesday, saying that he doesn’t “have an attorney general.”

And while the president has attacked Sessions in the past, Republicans say these latest remarks solidify the belief that Sessions’s days in the top law enforcement job are numbered.

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“You can’t be very effective if you don’t have the confidence of the president, and clearly he lost the confidence of the president a long time ago,” a former Trump transition official told The Hill.

“Their relationship is so openly toxic that it is hard for him to be effective, and I think it is hard for [Capitol Hill] to take him seriously knowing or believing that his days are numbers and his influence in the administration is so limited,” the official continued.

Sessions didn’t address the president’s comments as he made a trip to Illinois on Wednesday, delivering remarks at a conference and making a surprise visit to the Chicago Police Department. But Trump’s most recent attack hung over his presence and was noted by local media.

Republican strategists told The Hill that despite Trump’s recent fiery attacks, Sessions is likely safe until after the midterm elections. The firing of Sessions, or his resignation, would simply add to a sense of turmoil ahead of the midterms, something unlikely to help the GOP.

“I would expect that Sessions gets the Rumsfeld treatment after the election,” GOP strategist Brian Darling told The Hill.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resigned from his position the day after the 2006 midterm elections, when Democrats retook the House and Senate majorities amid upheaval over the Iraq War under former President George W. Bush. Republicans at the time were highly critical of the decision, believing it might have improved their prospects if Rumsfeld had left his post much earlier. 

The former transition official said firing Sessions before the midterm elections could hurt the GOP’s prospects of holding on to seats in Congress by potentially raising questions on whether he is trying to meddle in special counsel
Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s ongoing investigation. Sessions has earned Trump’s ire for recusing himself from decisions on the Russia probe.

“I think the conventional wisdom on the Hill that I think is right is Sessions needs to stay through the election so that the whole Russia situation isn’t more of an issue on the campaign trail for the midterm elections,” the former transition official said.

If Democrats regain the Senate majority in November, it might make it tougher for Trump to win confirmation of a successor to Sessions. Getting rid of Sessions would put Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinFBI investigated media leak of McCabe comment about Flynn and Trump House Judiciary chairman threatens to subpoena Rosenstein Sessions unveils task force to combat transnational criminal groups like MS-13 MORE in charge of the department.

In the interview with Hill.TV, Trump vented about Sessions, making his frustrations crystal clear.

He blamed Sessions for giving confusing answers at his confirmation hearing, where he failed to highlight meetings he held the previous year, as an Alabama senator, with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. This led to Sessions’s decision to recuse himself.

“[Sessions] went through the nominating process and he did very poorly,” Trump said. “I mean, he was mixed up and confused, and people that worked with him for, you know, a long time in the Senate were not nice to him, but he was giving very confusing answers. Answers that should have been easily answered. And that was a rough time for him.”

Trump, in the interview, also said he was irritated not only with Sessions’s recusal but with his performance as attorney general. He specifically mentioned the border, a surprise given Sessions’s record in enforcing Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy earlier this year.

Darling said the two men are “ideologically in lockstep,” but their rocky personal relationship has spilled into their professional relationship.

“You’re in a situation now where his boss does not appear to have a great degree of confidence in his abilities, and that is an untenable situation that likely won’t continue past the elections,” he said.

Ian Prior, a former spokesman for the Justice Department under Trump, defended Sessions’s efforts on immigration.

“From the minute that Sessions became attorney general, he made border security an absolute priority of the Department of Justice,” Prior told The Hill. “I think that it would be a misconception, certainly, that the attorney general has not prioritized enforcement of immigration laws and devoted significant resources to enforcing those laws.”

Prior also said he believed the president’s recent remarks are not an escalation, but simply part of a vacillating pattern in which Trump’s frustration with Sessions flares up at times.

“I definitely wouldn’t describe this as an escalation, it’s just a bubbling up, which has happened several times over the last 15 months,” Prior said.

Some GOP strategists, however, say Trump has reason to be angry with Sessions.

“We know why he is pissed. It is about the Russia recusal and, thus far Trump makes a very good point from whether or not he should have actually recused himself or at least he should’ve told him, at a minimum, that he planned to do that,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said.

Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser floated the possibility that Trump could seek to replace Sessions with Rudy Giuliani, who is currently serving as the point person on Trump’s legal team. Giuliani, like his boss, calls Mueller’s probe a “witch hunt.”

“I cannot imagine him appointing somebody that had not made similar public comments,” Steinhauser said.

Morgan Chalfant contributed.