The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and Sessions feud over the direction of the Justice Department

President Trump once again attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Sessions hit back by saying the Justice Department will not be politically influenced. (Video: Reuters)

President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions engaged in a public war of words Thursday — more fallout over the Justice Department securing a guilty plea this week from Trump’s former lawyer and a guilty verdict against his former campaign chairman.

The spectacle of the chief executive feuding with the nation’s top law enforcement officer marked the latest argument in the long-soured relationship between the two.

Trump, speaking to Fox News Channel, said that Sessions “never took control of the Justice Department” and again faulted him for recusing himself from the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. “What kind of man is this?” the president asked.

Sessions pushed back hours after Trump spoke, saying the Justice Department will not be “improperly influenced by political considerations.”

“I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in, which is why we have had unprecedented success at effectuating the President’s agenda — one that protects the safety and security and rights of the American people, reduces violent crime, enforces our immigration laws, promotes economic growth, and advances religious liberty,” Sessions said in a statement.

Trump also decried the practice of people caught committing crimes offering evidence against others for reduced prison sentences.

“It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal,” the president said. “They just make up lies, I’ve seen it many times.”

Trump sought advice on possibility of pardoning Manafort

The relationship between President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has deteriorated in recent months. Here’s a look at how they got to this point. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post, Photo: John Bazemore/The Washington Post)

Trump said he respects Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, who went to trial rather than cooperate. Manafort was convicted Tuesday, the same day Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight charges, including that he violated campaign finance law at the direction of then-candidate Trump.

Cohen has not entered into a cooperation agreement with prosecutors, but his lawyer has signaled that he could provide evidence to prosecutors.

Trump also lambasted Sessions for running a department that he said is dominated by Democrats and unwilling to prosecute Democratic corruption.

The back-and-forth marked the latest chapter in a long-running drama surrounding Sessions’s job security, but on Thursday, for the first time, some of his support among Republicans appeared to weaken, as two leading GOP senators suggested that he could be replaced in the fall.

Sessions became attorney general in February 2017, and recused himself from the Russia inquiry less than a month later. Because Sessions is recused, the investigation, led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, is overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. If Sessions left the Justice Department and the Senate confirmed a new attorney general, that person probably would take control of the Russia inquiry.

Trump says Justice Department could have handled Russia probe, accuses special counsel team of unprecedented bias

Sessions, a Republican former senator from Alabama, was among the earliest and most high-profile supporters of Trump during a GOP primary campaign in which the real estate mogul and reality television star was shunned by most elected officials in Washington.

“You know, the only reason I gave him the job is because I felt loyalty,” Trump said on Fox News. “He was an original supporter.”

Trump declined on Thursday to say whether he plans to fire Sessions or Rosenstein.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters that he thinks it’s “very likely” that Trump will replace Sessions but said it would be unwise for him to do so before the November midterm elections.

“The president’s entitled to an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that’s qualified for the job, and I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice,” Graham said. “Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn’t have the confidence of the president.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said Thursday that he could find time to hold hearings on a new nominee later this year after the Senate votes on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh.

That was a change in posture from a year ago, when Grassley made clear to the White House that he wouldn’t have time to hold hearings on a possible replacement for attorney general. Grassley said he was not advocating for a change at the Justice Department but simply responding to questions about timing.

“I’m just very generically telling people that I’ve got time for hearings this fall,” he told The Washington Post.

Asked whether he still has confidence in Sessions, Grassley said: “Let’s put it this way, he’s a good friend.”

Those lawmakers’ statements were noteworthy because for more than a year, Senate Republicans have sought to shield Sessions as he absorbed blistering public and private criticism from the president.

At times, when Trump seemed most eager to remove the attorney general, Sessions’s well of support in Congress was an important factor in persuading the president not to do so, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss White House deliberations.

Part of the disenchantment stems from a growing rift between Grassley and Sessions over Grassley’s legislation to change criminal justice policy.

Sessions, whose views on law enforcement are shaped largely by 1980s-era mandatory-minimum sentences and harsh penalties for drug dealers, came out against the measure earlier this year, saying it “risks putting the very worst criminals back into our communities.”

Grassley has been willing to work with Democrats on legislation that would reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders. He was furious that Sessions opposed his bill, one of his biggest legislative priorities, complaining that he had worked hard to get Sessions confirmed as attorney general.

“It’s Grassley’s bill, and when the attorney general said he wouldn’t support it, Grassley said that was disloyal,” said a person close to Sessions. “But this isn’t a quid pro quo thing, and the attorney general isn’t going to be blackmailed.”

Other Republicans made clear that they are still in Sessions’s corner.

Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, told reporters that it would be difficult to confirm another attorney general in the fall. He did not specify whether he was talking about before or after the midterm elections.

“We don’t have time, nor is there a likely candidate who could get confirmed, in my view, under these current circumstances,” Cornyn said. “I think it would be good for the attorney general and the president to try to work out their differences.”

“I know this is a difficult position for [Sessions] to be in, but I think it would be bad for the country, it would be bad for the president, it would be bad for the Department of Justice for him to be forced out under these circumstances. I hope he stays the course, and I hope cooler heads prevail,” Cornyn added.

Those sentiments were echoed by two other senior Senate Republicans, Susan Collins (Maine) and Orrin G. Hatch (Utah).

“It certainly would send the wrong message, because the basis of the president’s criticism of the attorney general is that he recused himself — appropriately so — from the Russia investigation and is letting the special counsel undertake his necessary work,” Collins said.

In his statement, Sessions said: “While I am Attorney General, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action.”

That statement appeared to be a reference to Trump’s repeated demands that the Justice Department investigate some of its former employees, and fire some current ones whom Trump has accused of partisan bias against him. Trump also has repeatedly prodded the department to accede to demands from House Republicans to turn over sensitive investigative records surrounding the Russia inquiry.

Although Trump regularly attacks Sessions on Twitter and in other public comments, Sessions rarely responds. This time, people close to the attorney general said, he pushed back because the statement came directly from the president — as opposed to a tweet that could have been written by a staff member — and because Trump claimed that Sessions is not in control of his department.

Trump’s repeated efforts to shame Sessions to the point where he might resign have come under scrutiny by Mueller, who has sought to determine whether the president’s actions are part of a broader attempt to obstruct justice, according to people familiar with the matter.