President Donald Trump’s broadside against Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a New York Times interview this week was no careless accident or slip of the tongue.
Instead, the president was sending a message, said a Trump adviser who talked with him after the interview—making a deliberate effort to convey his lingering displeasure with his attorney general, who recused himself in March from the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“He didn’t just do that randomly,” the adviser said of the president. “There was a certain thinking behind it.”
Precisely what Trump expected Sessions to do in response remains unclear. Sessions said Thursday that he intends to remain in his position for the time being. “I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate,” Sessions said at a Department of Justice press conference. “We’re serving right now. What we’re doing today is the kind of work that we intend to continue.”
One person close to Sessions said he has no interest in resigning, although he previously offered to do so in late May, following several outbursts by Trump over his recusal.
While the resignation attempt was previously reported, this person told POLITICO that Trump had demanded that Sessions submit a resignation letter. By the time Sessions did so the following day, Trump had cooled down and rejected the offer.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general and the White House did not immediately respond requests for comment on the episode.
In the interview Wednesday with the Times, Trump suggested he would have picked someone else to run the Justice Department had he known Sessions was going to remove himself from oversight of the Russia probe, which has expanded to include contacts between Kremlin-connected operatives and Trump aides and family members.
“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, calling Sessions’ actions “very unfair.”
Trump further disparaged Sessions’ performance at his confirmation hearing. He also suggested that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia probe in Sessions’ stead, isn’t politically loyal to the administration.
One senior administration official said Trump remained angry about the recusal because he didn’t know it was coming and that “it made him look weak.” Trump learned about the recusal from news reports and had no idea it was under serious consideration, this person said.
“He never wants to look weak or give into his critics,” this person said. “This made it seem like Sessions had done something wrong, that there was a reason to recuse himself.”
Trump is also frustrated about the string of legal defeats for the travel ban and occasionally blames Sessions for that, this adviser said.
“I have heard him tell the same story about Jeff Sessions 10 times that he told the New York Times,” the official said. “No one was surprised at it. Everyone knew exactly how he felt. He has said it over and over and over.”
Trump’s public comments provoked a media firestorm and triggered widespread speculation that Sessions might resign or be fired.
Yet, after the interview Wednesday, Trump appeared to have no regrets, said the adviser. He was in a great mood and said the exchange with the Times reporters had gone well, this person added.
The adviser said a quick dismissal of Sessions wasn’t likely, nor did Trump think he could immediately fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Rather, this person said, the interview was intended to send a message to Mueller and to make sure Sessions understood the depths of the president’s anger. Several other Trump officials and advisers also said Thursday they do not expect the president to fire Sessions.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump’s comments were not a bid to get Sessions to quit. “I think you know this president well enough to know that if he wanted somebody to take an action, he would make that clear,” Sanders said during a White House briefing.
Another senior administration official said Trump has rarely spoken to Sessions in recent months and had no immediate plan to see him — and added that Sessions is rarely in the West Wing huddling with Trump or other top aides, like Stephen Miller, who worked for Sessions in the Senate before joining the Trump campaign.
Having the tensions with the president of the United States spill out in public as they did Wednesday created the prospect of a zombie attorney general—going through the motions of the office, while lacking any real connection to or support from the president and the White House.
“DOJ officials do not and should not communicate with the White House on routine criminal cases, so in that sense the day-to-day work can continue,” said former Justice Department Congressional liaison Ronald Weich, now dean of the University of Baltimore law school.
“But there are many policy, legislative and personnel matters where close coordination is appropriate and necessary if the Department is going to be effective in its mission. Also communication is vital on sensitive national security matters. So, the president’s public reproach of the AG and the DAG is unhealthy and quite bizarre,” Weich added.
At a scheduled press conference Thursday on a major action against crime on the “dark web,” Sessions didn’t respond directly to Trump’s criticism, but did say that the development hadn’t affected his ability to oversee the federal government’s law enforcement efforts.
“I’m totally confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way,” the attorney general said.
Despite the obviously strained relationship with the White House, there were few outward indications Thursday that Sessions is feeling beleaguered.
“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,” Sessions said as a planned press conference on cybercrime was diverted by questions about Trump’s attention-grabbing critique.
In recent months, Sessions has made significant moves to seek stiffer sentences for criminals, end the practice of directing settlements to nonprofit groups and restore a program making it easier for local law enforcement to seize money and property from suspected criminals, even if they’re never convicted or even charged.
While Sessions isn’t getting many kudos from the White House these days and now finds himself receiving end of a humiliating public tongue-lashing from the president, the attorney general gets a lot of positive feedback from elsewhere for his work.
At a Justice Department event Wednesday, one speaker after another lavished praise on Sessions, with one sheriffs’ association official calling the attorney general’s work “amazing.”
“I just want to say thank you,” Oakland County, Mich. Sheriff Michael Bouchard said. “It’s a sea change in the last year. And it means a great deal to the men and women on the frontline to see that support getting back in the sails as we traverse these troubled waters.”
One former official said Trump’s effort to undercut Sessions may have actually strengthened his hand in the department.
“Actually, I believe that Sessions determination to stay on as attorney general in the face of Trump’s criticisms has likely enhanced his reputation within the Department of Justice,” said former acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger. “This is a strange world in which criticism by this particular president is not damaging.”
Given the tensions on display at the moment, it seems doubtful that Trump or other White House aides would go to bat for Sessions if—for instance—he decided to put up a fight over cuts to the Justice Department in the president’s budget.
But Sessions probably has the ties to Congress to make up for that, another former official said.
“Sessions…holds a lot of gravitas and respect with some of his former colleagues and no doubt will rely on his long-time service as senator in trying to get the department’s agenda addressed,” said Debra Wong Yang, who served as a U.S. attorney in Los Angeles from 2002 to 2006.
One strange aspect of Trump’s public attack on Sessions was that it caused Democratic lawmakers to rally to his side, even though they rarely agreed with him in the Senate and have vocally oppose nearly every major initiative he has undertaken as attorney general.
“I opposed Sessions, but he shouldn’t be forced to resign for following ethical rules – especially if he’ll be replaced by a Trump lackey,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said on Twitter. “Ultimately, this is about the rule of law, not Sessions. Protecting Mueller probe’s independence & integrity is the top priority.”