The president repeated his long-standing objection to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation and his insistence that he would have chosen another attorney general had he known someone else would oversee the inquiry.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump blamed the Justice Department on Thursday for the investigations surrounding him, criticized the deal struck with his former lawyer Michael Cohen and lashed out at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who countered with a rare public rebuke of the president.
Trump also praised Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager who was convicted of financial fraud this week, for refusing to cooperate with the Justice Department and said that plea agreements, an essential tool for prosecutors, should be outlawed.
“It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal,” Trump said in an interview recorded Wednesday and aired Thursday on Fox News.
Asked whether he is considering firing Sessions, the president only repeated his long-standing objection to Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation and his insistence that he would have chosen another attorney general had he known someone else would oversee the inquiry. “He took the job and then he said, ‘I’m going to recuse myself,’ ” Trump said of Sessions. “I said, ‘What kind of a man is this?’ ”
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In a pointed reply, Sessions warned the president not to intrude on federal law enforcement. “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations,” he said in a statement issued shortly before he met with Trump at the White House about criminal-justice reform.
The exchange escalated the public war Trump has waged for more than a year on the Justice Department, training most of his fire on the special-counsel investigation. Sessions’ response, his most forceful public pushback yet on Trump, showed the treacherous political terrain he is navigating: appointed by a president who has made apparent that he views law enforcement as loyal protectors but overseeing a Justice Department that views independence from political pressure as essential to the rule of law.
Their exchange also came on a day of potentially damaging revelations for the president about the special counsel and Cohen inquiries. A longtime friend and the publisher of The National Enquirer, David Pecker, was given immunity to detail Cohen’s crimes and Trump’s role, a person familiar with the investigation confirmed. Trump’s lawyers also revealed they warned him against even considering pardons for Manafort or other former aides, at least for now, opening Trump to accusations of tampering.
Most Republicans on Capitol Hill stood firm behind Sessions, who spent two decades as a senator, publicly cautioning Trump against firing him. They cited a packed calendar and lack of confirmable replacements for a closely divided Senate where Democrats are watching vigilantly for any moves by the president that could undermine the Russia investigation.
“We don’t have time, nor is there a likely candidate who could get confirmed in my view under the current circumstances,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a key Republican swing vote, warned that removing Sessions because of his recusal from the Russia investigation “certainly would not be a wise move.” A spokesman for the majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said he was not aware of any change in the leader’s support for Sessions.
The main exception was Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, head of the Judiciary Committee. Grassley has warred with Sessions over one of his top policy priorities, a comprehensive bipartisan criminal-justice overhaul also championed by the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. Grassley has said he believes Sessions has led opposition within the administration to the legislative package.
During Thursday’s meeting at the White House, the president held off on backing the proposal at least until after November’s midterm elections, concluding that an endorsement now carried too much political risk, according to a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Trump’s decision notably aligned him with Sessions, and Grassley signaled his displeasure with the attorney general’s interference by suggesting he would be open to confirming a possible replacement for him. “I’ve got time for hearings this fall,” he said. He had protected Sessions last year amid rumors of his firing by saying that the Senate would not make room for confirmation hearings for a new attorney general.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also hedged his support for Sessions, noting it was obvious Sessions had lost the president’s confidence and that he did not necessarily object to Trump replacing him under the right circumstances after the midterm elections. Graham had previously said Trump would have “holy hell to pay” if he fired Sessions.
During his Fox interview, Trump also complained that the campaign-finance crimes Cohen admitted committing at his direction were “tiny ones,” or “not even crimes.”
But he appeared to chiefly blame Sessions for his legal woes. “I put in an attorney general that never took control of the Justice Department,” Trump said. “Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department and it’s a sort of an incredible thing.”
As for Pecker, the tabloid executive was granted immunity by federal prosecutors investigating payments during the 2016 presidential campaign to the two women — Stephanie Clifford, a pornographic film actress better known as Stormy Daniels, and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — who said they had affairs with Trump, a person familiar with the investigation confirmed Thursday.
Pecker is chairman of American Media, the nation’s biggest tabloid news publisher, best known for its flagship, The National Enquirer.
He is close to Trump and Cohen, and had been integral to a campaign effort to help protect Trump from embarrassing stories about women as he ran for the presidency.
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday night that Pecker was cooperating with prosecutors, and Vanity Fair published news of the immunity deal Thursday.
The Associated Press reported that The Enquirer kept a safe containing documents on the hush-money payments and other damaging stories it killed as part of its cozy relationship with Trump.
Five people familiar with the case who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they signed nondisclosure agreements, said the Trump records were stored alongside similar documents pertaining to other celebrities’ catch-and-kill deals, in which exclusive rights to people’s stories were bought with no intention of publishing to keep them out of the news.
By keeping celebrities’ embarrassing secrets, the company was able to ingratiate itself with them and ask for favors in return.
But after The Wall Street Journal initially published the first details of McDougal’s catch-and-kill deal shortly before the 2016 election, those assets became a liability. Fearful the documents might be used against American Media, Pecker and the company’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard, removed them from the safe in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration, according to one person directly familiar with the events.
It was unclear whether the documents were destroyed or simply were moved to a location known to fewer people.
Pecker’s cooperation gives prosecutors a second line of access to communications about the effort to protect Trump’s secrets involving women during the campaign, on top of the information provided by Cohen.