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Under attack from the president, Attorney General Sessions still advancing conservative agenda

July 25, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
President Trump's escalating criticism of Jeff Sessions over his rescual from the Russia investigation has exposed a rare public rift between a president and his attorney general, leading some to believe that Sessions may be forced out. How did we get here, and how are fellow Republicans responding? John Yang and Sari Horwitz of The Washington Post join Jeffery Brown to discuss.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The escalation of President Trump’s criticism of Jeff Sessions exposes a rare public divide between an American president and his attorney general.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m disappointed in the attorney general. He shouldn’t have recused himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president’s latest salvo came this afternoon, at his news conference with Lebanon’s prime minister. That followed a morning broadside on Twitter, declaring: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a very weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes and intel leakers.”

And, yesterday, another tweet that called Sessions “our beleaguered A.G.” and plaintively asked why he’s not investigating Hillary Clinton.

So, what is next? The president said this today:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want the attorney general to be much tougher on leaks from intelligence agencies. We will see what happens. Time will tell.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sessions was a veteran Republican senator from Alabama, and in early 2016 became the first in that body to endorse the Trump candidacy.

After he won, president-elect Trump nominated him as attorney general. But less than a month after Sessions’ confirmation, it emerged that, despite earlier denials, he had, in fact, met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. Attorney General: I shouldn’t be involved in any campaign investigation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In early March, Sessions he recused himself from Russia-related investigations, a decision still angers the president, as he made clear to The New York Times last week.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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 can’t — I’m not going to take you.

It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president.

JEFFREY BROWN: The next day, Sessions said he has no plans to resign.

JEFF SESSIONS: We love this job. We love this department. And I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate.

JEFFREY BROWN: The attorney general has not been heard from since, but several Republican senators have rallied to their former colleague.

Today, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham called the president’s rebuke of Sessions for not prosecuting Hillary Clinton highly inappropriate.

And Utah’s Orrin Hatch said he was surprised.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH, R-Utah: Jeff has been very loyal to the president, and I think he deserves loyalty back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Democrats warned that forcing out Sessions would spark a new firestorm.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: Many Americans must be wondering if the president is trying to pry open the office of attorney general to appoint someone during the August recess who will fire special counsel Mueller and shut down the Russia investigation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even so, the new White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that the die may be cast.

HUGH HEWITT, Radio Talk Show Host: It’s clear the president wants him gone, isn’t it, Anthony?

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, White House Communications Director: I have an enormous amount of respect for the attorney general, but I do know the president pretty well. And if there’s this level of tension in the relationship, that that’s public, you’re probably right.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal — we could use some more loyalty. I will tell you that.

JEFFREY BROWN: that level of tension may have been in play last night at the Boy Scouts’ National Jamboree.

The president brought with him Cabinet members and former Scouts Ryan Zinke and Rick Perry, but Eagle Scout Jeff Sessions was nowhere to be seen.

A very high-level rift now out in the open.

We get more from our own John Yang, reporting from the White House, and Sari Horwitz, who covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post.

John, you were at that press conference today. Where does this leave things as far as Jeff Sessions holding on to his job?

JOHN YANG: Well, you know, the president rejected the suggestion of a reporter that he had been leaving Jeff Sessions slowly twisting in the wind, to use an old Watergate phrase.

But, at the same time, as you heard in your report, he said he’s got no timeline for when he’s going to make a decision. It is clear that the president sees a direct line from Jeff Sessions’ recusing himself from the Russia investigation to the appointment of Robert Mueller as the special counsel and this investigation that is dogging him still.

He told The Wall Street Journal in an interview before that news conference, if Jeff Sessions didn’t recuse himself, we wouldn’t even be talking about this subject.

So it’s clear he is still very frustrated, very, in his words, disappointed in his attorney general.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Sari Horwitz, is there anything more coming out of the Justice Department? Do we know how the attorney general is taking all this?

SARI HORWITZ, The Washington Post: Well, you know, it’s just been an extraordinary spectacle playing out here in Washington.

And I have been at the Justice Department all day, and all indications are that Jeff Sessions is not going to resign and that he’s moving forward with his conservative agenda. He, really more than any other Cabinet member, has been putting many place, moving quickly, methodically to undo Holder, Eric Holder, and Obama policies at the Justice Department, and he’s moving forward on that.

He’s compartmentalizing these disparaging comments by the president, which I’m being told by people at the Justice Department he’s been doing since he got in as attorney general in February. You know, he recused himself in March, and this has been going on since March.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sari, you and your colleagues reported today on discussions within the White House about replacing Jeff Sessions and how that might happen.

So, those discussions are taking place?

SARI HORWITZ: We heard they had been taking place up until now, but it’s interesting. Today, the conservative media, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, conservative senators came out and said, we like the policies Jeff Sessions has been putting in place.

And actually, today, late afternoon, Jeff Sessions announced another new policy, a conservative policy, to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities and tie very important federal grants to local cities and states, to tie those grants to restrictions. Like, if the states seem to be harboring illegal immigrants, undocumented immigrants, they won’t give them the money.

And what we’re hearing is, tomorrow or the next day, he’s going to be announcing that the Justice Department is indeed doing leak investigations.

READ MORE: White House communications director says he’s willing to ‘fire everybody’ for leaking

JEFFREY BROWN: John, what do you make of the support that has been ever more vocal today, in fact, for Jeff Sessions from friends and allies?

JOHN YANG: Well, I think, Jeff, it really is one of the conundrums of this, is that he is extremely popular among Mr. Trump’s base, largely because of what Sari has just been talking about, his stand on illegal immigration, on sanctuary cities.

Remember that he was actually Steve Bannon’s first choice to be a presidential candidate because of his immigration policies. But then it became clear that he wasn’t going to run. So I think that — and one of the outside people that President Trump talked to, has been talking to about this tells me that this is something he did remind him, that Jeff Sessions is very popular among his base.

And you heard it from a lot of particularly Southern conservative Democrats on the hill today.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, John, we did hear also at the press conference the president again raising the issue of leaks today. So, that remains connected to all of this.

JOHN YANG: And you also have to wonder if that’s — if what he’s talking about with his tweets — and, by the way, you know, as Sari points out, he is going after a member of his own Cabinet as if he was one of his primary opponents in last year’s election — if this constant pressure on Sessions isn’t some sort of leverage to get the Justice Department to act on these leaks, which have been his real bugaboo in all these stories coming out of the Russia investigation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sari, just in our last 30 seconds, what about that? What about the leaks connection to all this sort of public furor we’re hearing?

SARI HORWITZ: We know Trump is angry about the leaks, and as I said, we have been hearing late afternoon at the Justice Department that within the next day or two Attorney General Sessions is going to make an announcement that the Justice Department has been doing leak investigations, maybe showing his tougher side to the president, and indicating that, along with illegal immigration and criminal justice policy, he’s also moving forward on finding the leakers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sari Horwitz of The Washington Post, and John Yang, our own, thank you both very much.

SARI HORWITZ: Thank you.