Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday he plans to stay on in his current job, even after President Donald Trump harshly criticized him a day earlier for recusing himself from the ongoing Russia investigation.
“I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate,” Sessions said at a Department of Justice press conference.
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In response to a flurry of questions about Trump’s public attacks on the top Justice Department leaders in a New York Times interview, Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took a “nothing to see here” approach, insisting that the president’s statements had not undermined their ability to do their jobs.
“We inside this Department of Justice will continue every single day to work hard to serve the national interest and to wholeheartedly join in the priorities of President Trump,” Sessions said. “I have the honor of serving as attorney general. It’s something that goes beyond any thought that I would have ever had for myself. We love this job. We love this department.”
Asked how he could continue without Trump’s confidence, Sessions did not appear to dispute that the president was displeased with him.
“We’re serving right now. What we’re doing today is the kind of work that we intend to continue,” the attorney general said, referring to an announcement the Justice Department made Thursday about the dismantling of massive ‘dark web’ sites said to be trading in drugs, child pornography, weapons and other contraband. “I’m totally confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way.”
Trump told the Times in an interview Wednesday that he would not have hired Sessions if he’d known his attorney general would recuse himself from the Russia probe. “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 told the paper.
Trump also suggested Rosenstein had made a mistake by naming a special counsel to take over the Russia investigation after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey. The president also questioned the deputy attorney general’s political allegiance, saying: “There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any. So, he’s from Baltimore.”
Rosenstein offered no direct reaction to the swipe, nor did he rise to the defense of his hometown.
“We are working here every day to advance the priorities of the president and the administration,” Rosenstein said. “I was proud to be here yesterday. I’m proud to be here today. I’ll be proud to be here tomorrow. And we are spending every minute working to advance the interests of the department.”
The deputy attorney general then said he wouldn’t take any further questions on topics other than the cybercrime take-down.
The Justice Department press conference was also attended by a third official Trump criticized during the interview, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
“We have a director of the FBI, acting, who received $700,000, whose wife received $700,000 from, essentially, Hillary Clinton,” Trump complained, referring to campaign funds longtime Clinton adviser and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe transferred to a state senate campaign unsuccessfully waged by McCabe’s wife.
McCabe spoke at Thursday’s press conference, but he did not address the president’s attack.
Lawmakers seemed to have mixed feelings about Trump’s statements on Sessions. Some Democrats found them alarming.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the interview has “shaken me” and said the nation was “on the doorsteps of a constitutional crisis.”
Trump’s comments are “shocking and raises the specter of obstruction of justice,” added Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “We have a responsibility to ensure the FBI is protected.”
Despite the president’s suggestion that he never should have appointed Sessions, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said he still has confidence in the attorney general.
“I voted for him and I haven’t seen anything that he’s done since then that would cause me to change my mind,” Grassley told reporters Thursday. “Now, we have some policy differences like on sentencing reform and stuff like that and maybe a lot of other policy differences. But I think he’s been appointed to be attorney general.”
Grassley also opined that it’s possible for an attorney general to be too close to the president: “I want to remind everybody, not just you guys, but I want to remind people of what [Attorney General Eric] Holder said one time, that he was a wingman for the president. The attorney general can’t be a wingman for a president. He’s got to be very independent and be a wingman for the people of the country.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) seemed to back the president’s complaint about Sessions recusing himself.
“I agree with@realDonaldTrump, his Attorney General should not have recused himself over reported incidental contacts with Russian officials,” Paul wrote on Twitter.
However, Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. were not the reason the attorney general gave reporters when he recused himself from the Russia probe in March. Instead, he said his high-profile role in the Trump campaign made in appropriate his participation in any investigations into investigations related to the 2016 presidential election.
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
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