The defining moment of Jeff Sessions's time as attorney general has been when he recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation. That quickly led to the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is now extensively probing President Trump. And by all accounts, it seriously strained Sessions's relationship with Trump, who thinks Sessions should be protecting him and doing his bidding.
But there are increasing signs that Sessions has indeed done plenty of Trump's bidding behind closed doors. And he's done it on some dicey and very politically tinged issues — so much so that he made Trump's second FBI director deeply uncomfortable with the whole thing.
The Post's Devlin Barrett and Philip Rucker report that Sessions has pressured FBI Director Christopher A. Wray to get rid of his deputy Andrew McCabe, a holdover from James B. Comey's FBI and favorite target for Republicans alleging bias in federal law enforcement. Some have reported that Wray even threatened to resign; The Post is reporting that he did not explicitly do so.
Here's the meat of it all:
Sessions, Republican lawmakers and some members of the Trump administration have argued for weeks that Wray should conduct some kind of housecleaning by demoting or reassigning senior aides to his predecessor, Comey, according to people familiar with the matter. These people added that Sessions himself is under tremendous political pressure from conservative lawmakers and White House officials who have complained that the bureaucracy of federal law enforcement is biased against the president.
Trump has made no secret of his distaste for McCabe, even tweeting about it repeatedly after McCabe announced last month that he would soon retire, when he becomes eligible for full pension benefits. Trump's tweets date back to the summer and have focused on McCabe's wife's run for the Virginia state legislature as a Democrat and ties to Hillary Clinton.
Trump has even explicitly suggested both Sessions and Wray get rid of McCabe.
Trump retweeted this last month:
In other words, Trump has publicly stated his preference for Sessions to try to get rid of McCabe, and he has suggested Wray do it as well. Now we find out Sessions did indeed attempt it, and Wray resisted it.
But it's only the latest evidence that Sessions and his Justice Department are taking specific actions that Trump has publicly urged, even as they, in some cases, risk looking like they are in service to Trump's political goals.
The New York Times reported recently that a Sessions aide went to Capitol Hill last year seeking derogatory information about Comey at a time when Trump clearly had his eyes on firing Comey. (A Justice Department spokesman has denied this occurred.) There are also reports that the Justice Department is considering a revival of its investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails, which Trump has repeatedly called for. And back in August, Sessions announced a ramped-up effort to root out leakers in the federal government — just days after Trump tweeted that Sessions had taken “a VERY weak position” on the issue.
(Remarkably, Trump actually hit Sessions for his weak positions on both leakers and Clinton's emails in the same tweet. The Justice Department now appears to be addressing both.)
The Post's Josh Dawsey and Matt Zapotosky even reported last month that Sessions has engaged in an all-out campaign to regain Trump's faith by pointing to things the Justice Department has done in service of Trump's agenda. That's a pretty remarkable state of affairs.
Some of these things are issues on which Sessions has clearly sided with Trump, especially the dangers of leakers. So it's perhaps no surprise Sessions would pursue them. But the fact that Trump called for these actions before Sessions was reported to have taken them sure makes it look like he's taking direction from Trump — or at least succumbing to pressure that Trump and others have brought to bear.
Sessions has also, notably, resisted that pressure at times. During congressional testimony in November, he very publicly shunned a Republican lawmaker's conspiracy theory — one to which Trump has also alluded — about how the federal government may have colluded with Democrats to spy on Trump's campaign. Sessions said the issue didn't rise to the level of appointing a special counsel.
But the picture of what Sessions is doing behind the scenes is increasingly suggesting that Trump's very public hints that his attorney general should do this or that have often resulted in those specific actions. And especially when it comes to things such as trying to force out McCabe or reportedly dig up dirt on Comey, it sure makes it look like Sessions is using his authorities to try to address Trump's political aims.
And for an attorney general who leads the federal law enforcement that is currently investigating the president and his team, that's a perception problem, at best.