Republicans on Thursday rushed to the defense of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsRepublicans rally around Sessions after Trump criticismWarren: ‘I’d be very glad’ for Sessions to quitThe Hill’s 12:30 ReportMORE after President Trump levied stinging criticism on the former Alabama senator over his recusal from the federal Russia investigation.
In a wide-ranging interview published late Wednesday, Trump told The New York Times that he wouldn’t have hired Sessions to lead the Justice Department had he know that he would step aside from the probe — a shocking criticism that suggested a dramatic breakdown in their relationship and ignited speculation that Sessions might resign.
But Republicans on and off Capitol Hill rallied around Sessions Thursday, praising his integrity and service and insisting that there is no need for him to step down.
“I think Jeff Sessions has been and will continue to be an excellent attorney general,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), an early Trump supporter who says he supported Sessions’s recusal from the Russia investigation. “I don’t expect Jeff Sessions to resign, I would not want him to resign.”
Most Republicans stopped short of criticizing Trump’s remarks, characterizing them as “rhetorical” and evidence of the president’s growing frustration with the media frenzy surrounding the various investigations into his campaign’s potential ties to Russia.
“I have the highest opinion of [Sessions], and I believe the president still has a high opinion of Jeff Sessions — I think it’s more an indication of frustration than anything else,” said Rep. Trent FranksTrent FranksRepublicans rally around Sessions after Trump criticismRep: Charlie Gard granted permanent residence statusAmerica, don’t shy away from a bold missile shieldMORE (R-Ariz.), calling Sessions “a great and noble human being.”
But one vocal Trump critic, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), said it was inappropriate for the president to lash out at his attorney general for doing what Sessions believed was in the best interest of his department and country.
“The attorney general did what he thought he needed to do based on the law, and I am very disappointed the president would make that kind of statement about a man who I don’t agree with on everything,” Jones told The Hill, describing Sessions as “an honorable person.”
“If the president is not satisfied with the top cop,” Jones added, “then the president should make a change.”
Sessions, who served as a federal prosecutor and state attorney general before his election to Congress from Alabama, was the first senator to endorse Trump in the GOP presidential primaries. Because of his loyalty to Trump, Sessions was rewarded with the attorney general’s post.
Just five months into the job, Sessions on Thursday morning said that he would continue to serve as attorney general “as long as that is appropriate.”
“I’m totally confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way,” he said during a pre-scheduled press conference announcing the shutdown of an online criminal market.
The conservative group Americans for Limited Government (ALG) also issued a spirited defense of Sessions as an “outstanding” attorney general, praising him for cracking down on illegal immigration and “the war on police.”
ALG President Rick Manning called any attempt to remove him from office “a catastrophic mistake,” citing the brutal confirmation fight that would be inevitable in the Senate in order to replace Sessions.
Tensions between the president and his attorney general have lingered beneath the surface since Sessions stepped aside from the investigation in February, shortly after he took office. At one point Sessions reportedly suggested to the president that he could resign over the strain, but the president apparently declined the offer.
Sessions argued in recent public testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that his recusal was related to his role on the campaign, which he says would make any participation in an investigation involving the campaign a conflict of interest. Critics have pointed to a meeting with the Russian ambassador that Sessions failed to disclose during the confirmation process, suggesting that Sessions himself might be swept up in the scope of the investigation.
The move nevertheless incensed the president, who in The New York Times interview called it “very unfair” to him.
“How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you,’ ” Trump said. “It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”
The Russia investigation is now in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey. Trump also criticized Rosenstein in the Times interview, appearing to suggest that he could not be trusted because “he’s from Baltimore” and “there are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any.” Rosenstein, however, is a Philadelphia native and currently lives in Bethesda, Md.
Trump allies in Congress said the president’s criticism of Sessions fits a familiar pattern. Trump has a reputation for playing his staff members off one another and keeping them off balance.
During the first six months of the Trump administration, chief of staff Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer, chief strategist Stephen Bannon and senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner all have incurred the president’s wrath at times, though none has been shown the door.
“He does this to all his people. He did it to Bannon — he was in the doghouse, now he’s in the catbird seat. He did it to Jared, now he defends Jared,” one Trump ally said. “I don’t read a whole lot into it.”
GOP Rep. Robert AderholtRobert AderholtRepublicans rally around Sessions after Trump criticismGOP leaders are unified: Firing Mueller a bad ideaHouse urged to ‘go ugly early’MORE, a Trump backer who served for two decades with Sessions in the Alabama delegation, said Trump’s loose, unscripted style is why he’s so popular in places like Alabama.
“I think that’s what the American people like about Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe America I love is far better united than it is dividedRepublicans rally around Sessions after Trump criticismFeinstein: Trump Jr. will be subpoenaed if he refuses to testifyMORE. He’s not got this crafted answer. He speaks his mind about what he’s thinking,” Aderholt told The Hill. “I think there is some frustration that Trump has gone through on this issue. But in politics there are new issues every day. In three months, this will be forgotten and people will move on.”
“I think he still has confidence [in Sessions],” Aderholt went on. “If he didn’t, he would probably say, ‘Turn in your resignation.’ He calls it like he sees it.”
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