WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he wished he had picked someone other than Jeff Sessions to be attorney general, renewing a familiar line of attack against the top U.S. law enforcement official over his self-recusal from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
In morning tweets, Trump quoted Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who during a television interview on CBS voiced sympathy for Trump’s dissatisfaction with Sessions.
“If I were the president and I picked someone to be the country’s chief law enforcement officer, and they told me later, ‘Oh by the way, I’m not going to be able to participate in the most important case in the office,’ I would be frustrated too,” Gowdy said, according to Trump’s tweets. “There are lots of really good lawyers in the country, he could have picked somebody else!”
After that, Trump added, in his own voice: “And I wish I did!”
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The president’s remarks are the latest in what his critics see as a prolonged effort to undermine the Justice Department and the FBI – and by extension, the special counsel probe into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the election.
On Twitter and in public, Trump has repeatedly denigrated the law enforcement institutions and their leaders – calling his attorney general “beleaguered,” top leaders at the FBI “crooked” and even putting the word “Justice” in quotes to denote his disdain for the department.
Legal analysts say the president’s constant attacks threaten federal law enforcement’s traditional independence inside the executive branch, and that leaders there have taken unorthodox steps to appease the commander in chief, such as expanding an inspector general investigation upon presidential request.
“Once people get used to the president pushing the Department of Justice around, it’s just a very slippery slope,” said Matt Miller, who was a Justice Department spokesman under Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.
A current Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Trump, as president, could fire Sessions at any time, but for nearly a year, he has chosen instead merely to insult his attorney general. People familiar with the president’s thinking said Trump feels bound to keep Sessions because firing him could have damaging political consequences.
When Trump ousted James Comey as FBI director, the move became a piece of special counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation into whether Trump sought to obstruct justice. The president also has been told by high-ranking lawmakers that the GOP-controlled Senate would be unlikely to have the time or the political capital to confirm a successor this year, people familiar with the matter said.
“Everybody should realize – he may not be happy with officials. He’s not happy with them. That doesn’t mean he is going to remove anyone,” Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, said in an interview before the president’s tweets. “He realizes that would backfire.”
A senior White House official said Wednesday there is no expectation that Trump will fire Sessions or that he was “doing anything more than blowing off steam.”
“He hates the guy,” the official said. “Everyone in the building knows it.”
Inside the Justice Department, some officials have become numb to the president’s tweets, though others wonder why Sessions does not respond more forcefully.
Already, Trump’s efforts to shame Sessions into quitting, or to reverse his recusal, have become of interest to Mueller’s team, according to witnesses who have been interviewed by Mueller’s investigators.
Just before Sessions stepped aside from the probe, Trump had instructed White House lawyer Donald McGahn to persuade the attorney general not to do so, and McGahn called the department to make his case. Sessions nonetheless turned the supervision of the probe over to his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.
In March 2017, Trump confronted Sessions at the president’s Florida golf club and pushed him to “un-recuse himself,” said a senior administration official briefed on the encounter. Sessions declined, explaining in a tense conversation that changing course would only exacerbate the situation, the official said.
After the meeting, Trump told several White House officials that he regretted picking Sessions and that he might get rid of him. In the summer, the president went public with his frustration, telling the New York Times that he would not have picked Sessions as attorney general had he known what he was about to do.
Trump’s rage has served to benefit some of his interests. Public support for Mueller’s probe has ticked downward, and though a majority of Americans still support the investigation, just 18 percent of Republicans say it should continue, according to a recent Monmouth University poll.
Critics say the president also has been able to subtly influence Justice Department leaders. At Trump’s request, for example, the Justice Department asked its inspector general to investigate the allegation that the FBI’s use of a confidential source in the Russia investigation amounted to political spying on the Trump campaign. Department leaders also briefed lawmakers, including Gowdy, on the FBI’s use of the confidential source.
Gowdy said in the CBS interview that the FBI had an “obligation” to investigate suspected Russian interference in the election, and he suggested that the bureau’s use of a confidential source was appropriate. Trump’s tweet made no mention of those comments.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked Wednesday whether Gowdy’s remarks would cause Trump to “retract” his claim that the FBI had spied on his campaign.
“No, clearly, there’s still cause for concern that needs to be looked at,” Sanders replied. “Let’s not forget that the deputy director of the FBI was actually fired for misconduct. The president’s concerned about the matter, and we’re going to continue to follow the issue.”
The deterioration of Trump’s relationship with Sessions is remarkable, given the close bond they once enjoyed. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump at a time when few Republican lawmakers supported the candidate, and the two men seemed to share a nationalistic worldview that shaped some of the administration’s hard-line policies on illegal immigration and violent crime.
Even as he has faced withering attacks from his boss, Sessions has dutifully implemented Trump’s agenda, instituting a tougher charging policy for drug offenders and instructing border prosecutors to take a zero-tolerance approach to cases of illegal entry.
Though Sessions recently indicated to the White House he might have to resign if Rosenstein were fired, he has done little to push back publicly against Trump’s attacks. He frequently praises the president, by name, in speeches he gives across the country.
Sessions has seen his perch in Trump’s ideological orbit largely overtaken by White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, a former Sessions adviser who has retained the president’s confidence. Officials had once hoped that by winning over Trump’s conservative base, they might eventually restore Sessions’s standing with the president.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., a Trump ally, said last July he would oppose firing Sessions because of his vigorous implementation of the conservative agenda. But in an interview Wednesday, Gingrich said Sessions was “not doing his job” and was applying his recusal too broadly.
“I’m now convinced that without a new attorney general, we have no hope of getting to the bottom of this, so in that sense, I think the president is right,” Gingrich said. “But I think he also recognizes, and everybody reminds him, he couldn’t get anybody approved by the Senate right now.”
William Bennett, a self-described Sessions admirer and education secretary during the Reagan administration, said the attorney general needs to confront the reality of his position.
“There is one rule: If the president doesn’t want you, you don’t stay,” Bennett said. “You’ve got to be ready to go once you sense the president’s displeasure with you.”
Others, though, said they still support Sessions’s work.
“He’s handcuffed by the Russian recusal, but we all know that much of what is good that’s happening on the border is coming from the attorney general himself,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a Sessions ally and a prominent conservative voice on immigration. “It’s his efforts that are mobilizing judges and taking action there.”
Conservative columnist Ann Coulter, who has long been a Sessions supporter, said that the attorney general should not top the president’s list of disappointments.
“If we’re going to start a list of the people Trump should regret hiring, we’ll be here all day before we get to Sessions,” Coulter told The Washington Post in an email.
Gingrich said that while Trump knows he is not able to move against Sessions now, that could change, depending on the results of the midterm elections.
“It’s not yet productive, but I think at some point it will be,” he said.
That, though, means the Justice Department and its leaders probably face more attacks.
“It’s disheartening to see it continue,” said Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman under Attorney General John Ashcroft who worked briefly for Trump’s legal team. “Make up your mind. If you’re that dissatisfied with the attorney general, fire him.”
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The Washington Post’s John Wagner and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.