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Trump talks privately about the idea of a recess appointment to replace Sessions

By Carol D. Leonnig, Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker

July 26, 2017 at 9:31 PM

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President Trump said he would have "picked someone else" had he known that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia probe. (The Washington Post)

President Trump has discussed with confidants and advisers in recent days the possibility of installing a new attorney general through a recess appointment if Jeff Sessions leaves the job, but he has been warned not to move to push him out because of the political and legal ramifications, according to people briefed on the conversations.

Still raging over Sessions’s recusal from the Justice Department’s escalating Russia investigation, Trump has been talking privately about how he might replace Sessions and possibly sidestep Senate oversight, four people familiar with the issue said.

Two of those people, however, described Trump as musing about the idea rather than outlining a plan of action, and a senior White House official said no action is imminent. Several people familiar with the discussions said that Trump’s fury peaked over the weekend and that he and Sessions now seem to be heading toward an uneasy detente.

When asked Wednesday about the president’s discussions of a recess appointment, the White House released a one-sentence denial from Trump: “More fake news from the Amazon Washington Post.” The Washington Post is owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon.

Those who have discussed Sessions this week with Trump or with top West Wing officials have drawn different conclusions from their conversations — in part because the president ruminates aloud and floats hypotheticals, often changing his views hour to hour.

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(Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

Some advisers have come away convinced that Trump is determined to ultimately remove Sessions and is seriously considering a recess appointment to replace him — an idea that has been discussed on some of the cable news shows the president watches. These advisers said Trump would prefer that the attorney general resign rather than have to be fired.

“My understanding is the Sessions thing ends with Sessions leaving the attorney general job to go spend more time with his family,” said one outside counselor to the White House, who, like many others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject is highly sensitive.

But others involved in the discussions have concluded that Trump is merely venting with his continued assault against Sessions — one described it as “an emotional exercise,” while another called it “just a rough-up job.” They said Trump has neither fully articulated nor set in motion a plan to replace Sessions.

The president has the power to make a recess appointment when the Senate adjourns for a long break of more than a week, allowing the appointee to avoid Senate confirmation and serve through the end of next year. But Democrats have already signaled that they will use parliamentary stalling tactics to prevent the Senate from formally adjourning throughout the upcoming August break — in part to prevent Trump from being able to unilaterally install a new attorney general.

Late Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) tweeted a warning to Trump that his committee’s schedule already is “set” for the remainder of the year. It will consider judge and subcabinet nominees first, he wrote, adding, “AG no way.”

Related: The standoff between Trump and Sessions escalates

Trump has long confided privately what he began to say publicly last week — that he blames Sessions’s recusal for setting in motion the appointment of Robert S. Mueller III as the special counsel of the Russia probe, which the president sees as unfair and a metastasizing problem for himself and his family.

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Trump speaks during his first address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber at the Capitol. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Sessions has shown no indication of stepping aside voluntarily and was at the White House on Wednesday for unrelated meetings with other officials.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the incoming White House press secretary, told reporters Wednesday that Trump was “disappointed” in Sessions but also said, “You can be disappointed in someone but still want them to continue to do their job, and that’s where they are.”

Sanders added, “He wants him to lead the Department of Justice. . . . He wants him to focus on things like immigration, leaks and a number of other issues.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R), who has spoken with Trump this week, said he believes the president’s attacks will quiet down. “My read of him and the people around him is probably, in the end, it will be calm and we’ll move forward,” he said.

Asked whether he believes Sessions will leave the Justice Department, Gingrich said, “No, no . . . I really don’t think so.” But he acknowledged that he cannot be certain until the president makes up his mind. “He is really mad,” Gingrich added.

Related: Trump is ratcheting up his abuse of Jeff Sessions. And Sessions has no good options.

Several lawyers around Trump have been urging the president to stop his saber-rattling against Sessions and Mueller, according to three advisers. The president has countered that he believes the probe is a mere political attack — a “witch hunt” and “hoax,” as he often says on Twitter — and that he has no legal jeopardy to worry about.

But several lawyers have told Trump that his comments send a signal to Mueller that the president is trying to shut down or curtail the probe, as though he does have something to hide.

Trump has largely shrugged off these concerns. “In his mind, he is his own best advocate, his own best lawyer,” one adviser said. “He’s not willing to let the Mueller probe and other events unfold without taking action himself. ”

Replacing Sessions could be a precursor to firing Mueller as special counsel. But several of Trump’s White House advisers — including Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon — have strongly counseled him against ordering the dismissal of Mueller, which they have warned would be a political, if not legal, catastrophe, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Furthermore, Trump’s advisers have argued that replacing the attorney general would be a political distraction from the big-ticket items the administration is pushing in the Senate, including health care, taxes and the budget.

Related: Sen. Bob Corker: ‘No professional reason’ for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to step down

The discussions about Sessions’s fate come during a period of heightened anxiety inside the West Wing. The president has begun a staff overhaul, including empowering Anthony Scaramucci with a broad mandate as communications director and all-around adviser.

Priebus is fighting to maintain his influence with the president. The former Republican National Committee chairman has privately touted his ability to raise money from wealthy donors, suggesting he could bring in funds to a legal-defense fund, according to two people familiar with his appeal.

There has been tension in recent weeks between some in Trump’s orbit who want the RNC to absorb Russia-related legal fees and RNC officials who believe that would be an inappropriate use of party resources.

Trump, who has called Sessions “beleaguered” and “very weak,” renewed his rhetorical attacks on Wednesday by questioning why Sessions had not replaced the acting FBI director.

In two tweets just before 10 a.m., Trump wrote: “Why didn’t A.G. Sessions replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation but got big dollars ($700,000) for his wife’s political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives. Drain the Swamp!”

The attack was curious considering the president has the authority to remove McCabe himself without Sessions. After Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director, Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein met with four candidates to lead the FBI on an interim basis, but the administration decided to stick with McCabe.

Devlin Barrett, Rosalind S. Helderman, Jenna Johnson, Paul Kane, Abby Phillip, Karen Tumulty and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.


Carol Leonnig covers federal agencies with a focus on government accountability.

Ashley Parker is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2017, after 11 years at The New York Times, where she covered the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns and Congress, among other things.

Philip Rucker is the White House Bureau Chief for The Washington Post. He previously has covered Congress, the Obama White House, and the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns. He joined The Post in 2005 as a local news reporter.

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