Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to find his way back into President Trump's good graces.
Top Trump advisers, including White House counsel Donald McGahn and counselor Kellyanne Conway and former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former strategist Stephen K. Bannon, have at times joined the effort and pressed Trump to give his attorney general a second chance. They note that his department has helped reduce illegal border crossings and carried out a number of the president's initiatives, such as cracking down on leaks and targeting the MS-13 street gang.
But Sessions, who was one of Trump's earliest backers and gave up a safe Senate seat to join the administration, has, by all accounts, been unable to repair his relationship with the president. Trump has dismissed praise of Sessions, according to four White House officials and advisers, as he continues to rage about the Russia investigation and Sessions's decision to recuse himself from the probe into Moscow's meddling in the 2016 election and whether there was any coordination with the Trump campaign.
"He's one of the most active Cabinet secretaries there is," one White House official said. "He's done a fine job. Does it wash away the sin of recusal? I don't think so."
A second senior administration official said Trump rarely speaks to Sessions, but the attorney general's staff chats with Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, and McGahn has regular lunches with Sessions in the West Wing, sometimes accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
This official said Trump frequently talks to Cabinet members including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis but rarely calls Sessions because he is cautious about the probe and the appearance of impropriety — and will delegate others to call Justice on policy issues. This official also said Trump mainly sees the attorney general at Cabinet and national security meetings.
White House officials have begun privately guessing who will replace Sessions — even though he has said he has no plans to leave. Trump does not like to fire people — contrary to his TV image — and by publicly humiliating him has unsuccessfully tried to make Sessions miserable and force him to quit.
"Yes, I do," Trump said recently, when asked if he had confidence in Sessions.
Still, when Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) wrote an op-ed in the Washington Examiner calling for Sessions to be fired, arguing that he didn't have control over the FBI and that the Russia investigation had run amok, they received no blowback from the White House — aides said they guessed the lawmakers simply were trying to promote Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) for the job or gain favor with Trump. Other potential replacements include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, advisers said, and Politico reported Friday that Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, also wants the job.
Trump has, at times, shaken his head or groused when he sees Sessions on TV, advisers said, and has directed some of his frustration over the loss of Sessions's Alabama Senate seat toward the attorney general.
Trump is even turned off by the portrayal of Sessions on "Saturday Night Live" by Kate McKinnon, advisers said. A senior White House official said that Trump's frustrations were not a reflection of Sessions but that he found the portrayal "insulting."
Trump has quick word associations with people and Sessions does not evoke positive thoughts, according to aides. "Weak," the president will say. Or, in the words of another adviser: "He should have never recused himself." Trump, one longtime adviser said, doesn't consider Sessions to be loyal, a key trait to him.
The president will see reports on Fox News or hear from friends about issues related to the Clintons or Democrats, advisers said, and wonder why Sessions isn't looking into them — a frustration he has aired publicly in tweets. A senior White House official said Trump has never demanded that Sessions open an investigation.
"The president likes to hear he is investigating these things, but I don't believe they have had those conversations," one senior White House official said.
Sessions's place in the administration has become even more precarious as he loses allies in the West Wing. Rick Dearborn, his Senate chief of staff, has announced plans to leave, and Stephen Miller, Sessions's Senate communications director, has distanced himself from his former boss even as he has pursued policies similar to Sessions's.
But Kelly, who commands respect from Trump, is said to like Sessions, a boon for the attorney general, and McGahn also frequently backs Sessions.
Sessions's Justice Department has shown itself to be somewhat amenable to concerns expressed by congressional Republicans, which are similar to those raised by Trump. The attorney general recently directed senior federal prosecutors to look into a host of matters that Republicans had asked him to investigate, including Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state and the controversial sale of a uranium company to Russia. Separately, the FBI has been investigating the Clinton Foundation for many months. Though that probe technically predates Sessions, it had been put on hold around the presidential election, and news of its revival became public last week.
Whether Trump will eventually change tacks and fire Sessions remains unclear. The op-ed by Meadows and Jordan calling for Sessions to be ousted raised eyebrows, because Meadows is seen as a close Trump ally who frequently speaks with the president.
At the Justice Department, officials have tried to publicly tout their successes, hopeful that political allies and the president, a frequent television viewer, will take notice. They have done work that — in their view — should appeal to the president and his base, such as settling lawsuits with tea party groups, issuing guidance on religious liberty, cracking down on illegal immigration and rolling back various Obama-era guidances, including one advising courts to be wary of imposing heavy fines on those who can't afford them.
"We're trying to get our successes out in the ether," one department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss dynamics with the White House.
The official said Justice has communicated with some conservative constituencies, like law enforcement groups, and was recently heartened when the Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement praising Sessions's decision to make it easier for U.S. prosecutors to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that had legalized the substance, advisers said.
"It's that kind of stuff that you figure will lead to this tipping point where the audience of one says, 'Wow, that's pretty impressive,' " the official said.
But the official acknowledged that the department can't seem to overcome the president's frustration over Sessions's recusal, and even some publicizing of successes can lead to mixed results. The department has allowed its top spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, to make television appearances, but while half of the interview will be about work officials want to promote, the conversation often turns to the Russia investigation, which is not helpful to Sessions, if Trump is watching.
Justice Department officials are particularly frustrated by Republican House members critical of the attorney general for his recusal from the Russia investigation.
One department official said Sessions had no real option under federal regulations but to recuse himself. Even a number of top White House lawyers and aides argued to Trump that Sessions needed to step aside.
Trump will frequently remind aides that he was blindsided by the recusal and had to watch it live on Air Force One, just before an event, and that it looked as if Sessions was giving into the probe and giving it credibility. The Justice Department notified McGahn of Sessions's decision to recuse himself less than an hour before telling the public.
Sessions's office pays attention to what special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is doing from what is publicly reported, and is mindful of the scope his investigation — though Sessions's office is walled off from Mueller's work, which is being supervised by Rosenstein.
The official said that, despite the president's criticism, Sessions still "really, really believes in the president" and remains "almost in awe of the president's political instincts."
Sessions is widely disliked among liberals, who say his policies are rolling back decades of social and civil rights progress. But among conservatives and those on the far right, Sessions is a strong spot in the administration.
A few months ago, Leonard Leo, a legal adviser to Trump, said the president asked him about Sessions. Leo said he told the president he was impressed by the department, particularly its "religious liberty" guidance and the performance of the solicitor general's office. Leo said Trump largely listened to his assessment.
"For conservatives going into the Trump administration, the question was whether the department's morale could be restored and whether there would be a greater sensitivity to respect for the rule of law in the department," Leo said in an interview. "I think Attorney General Sessions has done a good job of creating the right atmosphere in the department."