But there is growing evidence that Senate Republicans, who have long cautioned Trump against firing Sessions, are now resigned to the prospect that he may do so after the November midterm elections — a sign that one of the last remaining walls of opposition to such a move is crumbling.
“We wish the best for him, but as any administration would show, Cabinet members seldom last the entire administration, and this is clearly not an exception,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in an interview Tuesday.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) told The Washington Post, describing the Trump-Sessions dynamic as “a toxic relationship.”
Added Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a longtime defender of the attorney general: “My sense is the fix is in.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores declined to comment.
Trump’s latest threats illustrate the depths of his hostility toward one of his earliest political supporters, who as attorney general has carried out parts of the president’s agenda most popular with his base.
But Trump has said he views Sessions as disloyal and has repeatedly blasted him for recusing himself from the Russia inquiry — a move that led to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s decision to appoint special counsel Robert S. Mueller III last year.
If Sessions leaves the Justice Department and the Senate confirms a new attorney general, that person probably would assume oversight of the investigation — as well as the ability to determine what material from the inquiry is shared with Congress and the public.
At least twice this month, Trump vented to White House advisers and his lawyers about the “endless investigation” of his campaign and said he needs to fire Sessions for saddling his presidency with the controversy, according to two of the people.
One such discussion occurred in early August, during the trial of Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman. On Aug. 1, the second day of the trial, Trump tweeted that Sessions should end the special counsel investigation.
“This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further,” Trump wrote. “Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!”
In subsequent talks with his lawyers and advisers, Trump said what he really wanted to do was fire Sessions, the people said.
His attorneys, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Jay Sekulow, advised him that Mueller could interpret such an action as an effort to obstruct justice and thwart the investigation — already a major focus of the inquiry, the people said.
Giuliani confirmed that he and Trump have discussed Sessions’s possible removal, but declined to offer details of their talks.
“If there is any action taken, the president agrees with us that it shouldn’t be taken until after the investigation is concluded,” Giuliani said. Sekulow referred questions to Giuliani.
White House aides have tried to convince Trump that firing Sessions could trigger more problems than it would solve. A senior White House official said the goal was to delay a firing, because Trump’s advisers do not think that stopping it is possible.
Others are urging the president to jettison current Justice Department leaders.
“He needs to fire Sessions, he needs to fire Rosenstein,” said Doug Deason, a major Republican donor. “They haven’t represented him or us well.”
Sessions’s friends and advisers have tried to buck him up in recent days, reaffirming his decision to defend his position
and telling him that if Trump were willing to face the political and possibly legal consequences of firing him, he would have done so by now, according to an ally of the attorney general.
Sessions, who served as a senator from Alabama for 20 years, continues to have strong support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who told reporters Tuesday he has “total confidence in the attorney general.”
“I think he should stay exactly where he is,” McConnell said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who said last week
that he could find time to hold hearings on a new nominee later this year, declined to comment Tuesday. A year ago, Grassley had said there was “no way” there was time in the schedule to confirm a new attorney general pick.
Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, told reporters Tuesday that several senators urged Sessions to stay in his post during a breakfast they held with him last week, as was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
“I told him what I just told you, that I thought it was important to the department, important to the country and important to the president that he stay strong,” Cornyn said.
“He’s only human, and it can’t be much fun, and so we were offering him our support and encouragement,” he added. “And I think he appreciated it. Hopefully it’ll make a difference.”
But several Republican senators on Tuesday appeared to be resigned to Sessions’s removal — casting it as a matter of when, not if.
“At the end of the first two years, changes happen because people are ready to leave, sometimes because their boss is ready for them to leave,” Blunt said.
“Trump doesn’t like him,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) told reporters Tuesday. “This relationship has soured, and I’m not blaming Jeff. It can’t go on like this.”
Corker said he thinks Sessions could be pushed out after the midterm election.
“They’d do it before, but they’re worried about the effect it would have on the midterms themselves,” he said in an interview, adding: “It’s about the investigation, and I think the Mueller investigation ought to go on unimpeded.”
Graham told NBC News on Tuesday that the president’s anger with Sessions goes beyond his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. “It’s a pretty deep breach,” he said, declining to elaborate.
Later, Graham told reporters that any replacement for attorney general must “support the idea that Mueller should be able to do his job without interference.”
But Senate Democrats scoffed at the idea that Trump would appoint an attorney general who would give the special counsel independence.
“I wouldn’t trust this president to put someone in place [who] wouldn’t an hour after he’s sworn in fire Mueller,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio).
Trump has repeatedly berated Sessions publicly in an apparent effort to force him to quit. Last year, Sessions submitted a resignation letter, which the president did not accept. Mueller is examining that episode and others to determine whether they amount to obstruction of justice.
Last week, in an interview on Fox News Channel, Trump again faulted Sessions
for recusing himself from the Russia investigation
, asking, “What kind of man is this?”
“I put in an attorney general who never took control of the Justice Department. Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department. It’s sort of an incredible thing,” Trump said.
Sessions fired back in a rare public rebuttal, saying he “took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in” and adding that the department will not be “improperly influenced by political considerations.”
Devlin Barrett, Tom Hamburger, Philip Rucker, Sean Sullivan, John Wagner and Erica Werner contributed to this report.