President Trump harshly criticized his attorney general and one of his most loyal supporters, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, indicating that he regretted the choice.
In an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday, Trump vented about the probe and said that he would not have appointed Sessions — a top campaign supporter — if he had known Sessions would step aside.
“Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” Trump said.
The comments are a dramatic public scolding of one of Trump's closest supporters in Congress during his presidential campaign, and the man currently holding a top Cabinet position. They also suggest that Trump had hoped Sessions could play a role in managing a probe that he has long called a “witch hunt” and suggested is a threat to the legitimacy of his presidency.
Trump called Sessions's decision to recuse himself “unfair.”
“Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president,” he added. “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”
Sessions recused himself from the investigation, which will look into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russians, shortly after being confirmed to the post, citing his work on the Trump campaign.
The decision placed responsibility for the probe squarely in the hands of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, whom Trump named to that position in January.
The investigation has dogged Trump's six-month-old presidency and has been the source of months of public and private venting. The investigation has only expanded, recently drawing Trump's children under the microscope after the New York Times reported that Trump's son Donald Jr. accepted a meeting with people purporting to be representing the Russian government about receiving derogatory information about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.
The president's remarks evoked strong comments from some former Justice Department officials.
Former U.S. attorney in New York, Preet Bharara, who was fired by Trump, tweeted: “The President today effectively asked Sessions for his resignation. Will he resign or insist on being fired?”
Robert Raben, a former assistant attorney general for the Office of Legislative Affairs during the Bill Clinton administration, said: “The president plays with fire when he attacks his military, law enforcement and Justice people. They are the bulwark of our safety. Demeaning them harms all of us.”
Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman in the Obama adminstration, said the country appeared “headed for a massive crisis" and called it "an attack on the very independence of the Justice Department."
"I think what the president is making clear here is he doesn’t believe the Justice Department ought to be able to make its own decisions about whether and how to investigate him," Miller said.
In the Times interview, Trump attacked several other figures connected to the probe, including Rosenstein, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and former FBI director James B. Comey.
Spokespeople for the Department of Justice and the special counsel declined to comment.
Trump also suggested that the special counsel investigation was now rife with conflicts, though he did not specifically name them.
Mueller, a former FBI director, was appointed to lead the investigation after Trump fired Comey. Trump had also considered Mueller as a candidate to replace Comey.
“He was up here, and he wanted the job,” Mr. Trump said. After he was named special counsel, “I said, ‘What the hell is this all about?’ Talk about conflicts. But he was interviewing for the job. There were many other conflicts that I haven’t said, but I will at some point.”
The president has criticized the special counsel investigation in the past. He questioned the political independence of attorneys being hired to work on the probe and indicated that Mueller's friendship with Comey was problematic.
“Well, he's very, very good friends with Comey, which is very bothersome,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News in June. “I can say that the people that have been hired are all Hillary Clinton supporters, some of them worked for Hillary Clinton.
“I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous, if you want to know the truth,” he added.
But his comments on Wednesday are his strongest to date. Trump criticized Mueller personally and warned that if the investigation veered into the personal finances of the Trump family, it will cross a line. He did not, however, say he would fire Mueller, though he was pressed repeatedly on the subject.
“I think that’s a violation,” Trump said. “Look, this is about Russia.”
Trump also expressed reservations about Rosenstein, who appointed the special counsel. According to the New York Times, the president expressed annoyance when he learned that Rosenstein was from Baltimore, where he had served as a federal prosecutor.
“There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any,” Trump said.
Trump's criticisms left virtually no one in contact with the investigation untouched, providing a glimpse of the visceral anger that the probe often evokes in him.
The president also levied new accusations against Comey, whom he has repeatedly accused of lying in his sworn testimony to Congress about his interactions with Trump.
Speaking about a meeting before Trump's inauguration in which Comey informed Trump about an unsubstantiated dossier of derogatory information about him, Trump said that he believes Comey intended to use the document as leverage against him.
“In my opinion, he shared it so that I would think he had it out there,” Mr. Trump said.
Asked by the Times whether he believes Comey intended it to be leverage, Trump replied. “Yeah, I think so. … In retrospect.”
Comey testified that he briefed Trump on the dossier based on the belief in the intelligence community that the incoming president should be informed about the “salacious and unverified” material before it was reported in the press. He was also chosen to provide the briefing alone to prevent further embarrassment to Trump.
“When he brought it to me, I said this is really, made-up junk,” Trump told the Times. “I didn’t think about any of it. I just thought about, man, this is such a phony deal.”
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.