Jeff Sessions — who as the 84th attorney general of the United States endured relentless attacks from President Trump — returned to the Justice Department on Thursday to claim the brown leather chair he once sat in at the commander in chief’s side.
In a gray suit and a red tie, Sessions sat at the head of the Justice Department’s Great Hall, next to William P. Barr, the man Trump picked to replace Sessions. Again and again, the 150 or so people in attendance stood and applauded him — while Barr, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and others lauded the work Sessions had done.
The moment was one that Sessions missed when he was in the department — and that some of his supporters thought was overdue. The presentation of the Cabinet chair is a tradition in the department — with officials all chipping in to cover the cost of buying it so their former boss can take it home. Sometimes attorneys general even get a lavish goodbye. At Eric H. Holder Jr.’s send-off, soul legend Aretha Franklin gave a surprise performance, and President Barack Obama cried.
Sessions, by contrast, was forced out in a day — after working for months under the threat that Trump could fire him at any time over his decision to recuse himself from the investigation that would become special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe, the conclusion of which could happen sometime soon. Sessions was replaced on an acting basis by Matt Whitaker, his chief of staff, who also attended the event Thursday. And the president continued to tweet about him.
In December, for example, referring to Mueller’s investigation, Trump wrote, “Jeff Sessions should be ashamed of himself for allowing this total HOAX to get started in the first place!” Two months later, he derisively referred to his former top law enforcement official as “another beauty,” and this month, he tweeted that Sessions “didn’t have a clue!”
Trump did not attend the ceremony Thursday, but his presence was felt. Rosenstein — himself the target of Trump’s ire at times — said in his remarks that “no attorney general’s tenure goes exactly as planned,” and noted that his 21-month term in the office surpassed “some of our most respected attorneys general,” including Barr. Barr served as attorney general for 17 months in the George H.W. Bush administration, including his time spent in an acting capacity.
“An attorney general’s success is measured by accomplishments, and not the length of service,” Rosenstein said.
Addressing Sessions directly, Barr said he had been “a direct beneficiary of your stewardship,” in part because “you and the president assembled an exceptional leadership team here.”
“I salute you, Jeff, and God bless you,” Barr said.
Sessions was not universally beloved inside the Justice Department, but the president’s constant attempts to humiliate the attorney general engendered significant sympathy for him there. A little more than a week after he left — as with previous attorneys general — Assistant Attorney General for Administration Lee J. Lofthus sent a memo to senior appointees, asking if they could contribute $35 toward the cost of his chair.
They covered the $1,542 cost and bought the chair, but some officials wanted to do a more formal send-off, said Peggi Hanrahan, Sessions’s longtime assistant in the Justice Department and the Senate.
“Normally, there is a going-away thing when AGs leave,” Hanrahan said, “but because of the way he left, there was nothing.”
When Barr was nominated as attorney general, they knew they had their moment. Sessions had been a U.S. attorney when Barr was attorney general in the 1990s, and the two liked and respected each other, Hanrahan said.
“They just decided to wait until Mr. Barr was there so they could do it right,” Hanrahan said.
The Justice Department allowed media to attend the event but barred journalists from taking photographs. A Justice Department photographer did so instead.
Asked if there was any consternation about hosting the event — given the fractured relationship between Trump and Sessions — Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said there was not.
“No,” Kupec said. “This is a regular practice of the Department of Justice for all attorneys general.”
For his part, Sessions beamed as he spoke to those in attendance. His months as attorney general, he said, were “the most meaningful months in my professional life.” As the crowd stood and applauded, he raised his hand in the air and stared out.
“Thank you, all,” he said.