Sen. John Cornyn counts Attorney General Jeff Sessions as one of his best friends in Washington, and their wives are even closer, making the couples regular double-date partners.
“We occasionally get together to break bread,” the Senate majority whip said Wednesday. One of those double dates came recently enough that Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Sessions could not avoid the elephant in the room: President Trump’s public taunting of his attorney general, in a manner that suggests he wants Sessions to resign.
“We didn’t talk in any great detail about this, but obviously it’s in the news,” Cornyn said, reiterating his strong support of Sessions remaining in office.
Cornyn is not alone in rallying to the defense of Sessions, who, despite sometimes having waged lonely battles as one of the chamber’s most staunch conservatives, still has many friends among Senate Republicans. Most have issued statements of support, and several are making private calls to reassure Sessions that they are behind him.
But the tension over Trump’s treatment of Sessions goes beyond the senators defending a friend.
Unlike any other controversial move that Trump has pondered in his six months as president, Senate Republicans are sending preemptive signals that firing the attorney general or pressuring him to resign would be a terrible move.
Some have warned high-level White House officials that it would look as though Trump were making the move solely to shut down an investigation of his campaign and the White House, now overseen by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, while also making clear that they agree with Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from an investigation of the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia.
Replacing Sessions would be difficult, and the idea of Trump making a recess appointment during the planned four-week break in August is foolhardy. Democrats can indefinitely stall a resolution to fully adjourn the Senate, having already forced minute-long periods during even shorter breaks to prevent Trump from having the authority to make temporary appointments while the Senate is away.
Democrats may have vehemently opposed Sessions’s nomination, but they have no intention of allowing Trump to fire him and name a new attorney general with a recess appointment, and frankly, Republicans do not seem to want to give Trump that power either.
Beyond concerns about the controversy that firing Sessions would bring, Senate Republicans say, Trump’s behavior is unseemly toward someone they respect, given that Sessions went out on a limb for the first-time candidate, becoming the first senator to endorse Trump’s candidacy.
“I think Sessions deserves to be treated much more fairly. I mean, Jeff was there when no other senator was,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the longest currently serving Republican in the Senate. Hatch spoke to Sessions last Thursday to declare his support, a message he conveyed to White House officials, and Hatch is trying to set up a call to Trump to deliver the same message.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made clear in a brief interview Wednesday that his backing of Sessions has gone up the chain of command. Asked if he told Trump of his support, McConnell smiled.
“I’ve conveyed that to the public and to others,” he said.
The support for Sessions runs deep across the Republican Party. Former senator Jim DeMint (S.C.), a conservative renegade who often clashed with McConnell, praised the attorney general Wednesday during a visit to the Capitol.
“One of the best guys I ever worked with,” he said. “I hope he and the president can work it out.”
The question, however, is how Senate Republicans will respond if Trump does force their friend out of the Justice Department — a move that might be followed by firing Mueller, setting off another crisis at least as big as the ouster of James B. Comey as FBI director in May.
Would there be any ramification beyond just expressing dismay?
That remains to be seen, but some are warning that the fallout would be devastating to the rest of Trump’s agenda.
“I think Jeff Sessions is doing a good job, and I think it would be incredibly disruptive and make it more difficult for the president to accomplish his agenda,” Cornyn told CNN early Wednesday.
By lunchtime, Cornyn declined to say what the ramifications would be, instead focusing on the attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions had served as an adviser to the Trump campaign, a high-profile surrogate who would travel with him and often introduce him at rallies. He also got caught up in a controversy by not fully revealing during his confirmation process all of his contacts with Russian officials.
That made it a by-the-book call to recuse, delegating the investigation to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who then appointed Mueller shortly after he was involved in the Comey firing — which is now its own piece of the Mueller inquiry.
“I can’t imagine any future nominee would have decided the recusal issue any differently from Jeff Sessions,” Cornyn said.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who was elected along with Sessions in 1996, became visibly angry when discussing Trump’s treatment of his former colleague. “It’s very difficult, it’s disconcerting, it’s inexplicable,” he said. “I don’t know why you have to tweet with regards to your feelings about people in your own Cabinet.”
One fallout from Trump’s treatment of Sessions could be to guarantee that no Senate Republican will again be willing to give up a seat to accept a job with Trump.
“There are some well-qualified individuals, who otherwise would be inclined to serve, who might be discouraged from doing so given the rift that he has had with one of his most loyal supporters,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate who became friends with Sessions as part of the 1996 class.
After Comey was fired, Sessions led the recruiting effort to get Cornyn the nomination to run the FBI. Their wives talked about the idea and Cornyn warmed to it, before other Republicans signaled that he would be too political a choice to run the independent investigative body.
Now, their double dates take on a different tone when they discuss working for Trump.
“He’s doing fine,” Cornyn said of Sessions. “He did the right thing, and I think he has the confidence that he did the right thing.”