WASHINGTON – Just two hours after President Donald Trump on Tuesday had again attacked him on Twitter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sat before a convening of government officials tasked with preventing elder abuse.
His prepared remarks called for him to single out, by name, the man who had appointed him to his job. But as he highlighted the problem of fraud against the elderly and approached the pivotal line, he stumbled.
“But in,” Sessions said, pausing to look down at the table in front of him, “this administration, we’re not going to tolerate it.”
His written remarks called for him to say, “But in the Trump administration, we’re not going to tolerate this.”
Sessions often deviates from the script when he speaks, and he generally has not shied from praising Trump directly. But the episode Tuesday in Washington, D.C., typifies the toxic relationship that now exists between the president and the former Republican senator from Alabama he picked to lead federal law enforcement.
Incensed by Sessions’ recusal from the Russia probe, Trump airs his rancor on Twitter, and it rockets across the Internet. Sessions, meanwhile, goes about his work, his counterattacks so muted that it is nearly impossible to identify them as such.
“He’s dealing with it well, keeping his nose down and doing his job,” said William Barr, a former attorney general who is in contact with Sessions. “I think his feeling is, if the president wants him to leave, he can tell him to leave.”
Trump’s latest salvo against Sessions came at 7:31 a.m., when he wrote amid a flurry of tweets: “The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax continues, all because Jeff Sessions didn’t tell me he was going to recuse himself…I would have quickly picked someone else. So much time and money wasted, so many lives ruined…and Sessions knew better than most that there was No Collusion!”
Trump has raged, publicly and privately, about Sessions stepping aside from the probe now led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which is exploring whether the president’s campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the election.
He has berated his attorney general so fiercely that Sessions, more than a year ago, submitted a resignation letter, which the president did not accept. He also has asked his attorney general to undo his recusal, although Sessions declined. Mueller is looking at those incidents, and others, to determine whether they might amount to obstruction of justice.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Those who know Sessions say he has long loved the Justice Department, and he is intensely motivated to keep working there. The Washington Post spoke to six people close to the attorney general for this story, most of them speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly.
As attorney general, those who know him say, Sessions wants to turn into reality the vision of America he long held as a senator.
Already, he has instituted a tougher charging policy for drug offenders and instructed border prosecutors to take a zero-tolerance approach to cases of illegal entry. He also has issued sweeping guidance to executive-branch agencies on the Justice Department’s interpretation of how the government should respect religious freedom, and taken positions that would appeal to conservatives in court cases, such as the Supreme Court’s consideration of a baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding.
“He’s very proud of the advancement of the Trump law enforcement, criminal justice agenda that he’s the moving force behind and that he came into office to advance,” said one person close to Sessions.
Two people who know him said, in conversations with them about Trump’s attacks, Sessions emphasized he was just trying to do his job.
“I have never heard him say he’s hurt,” one former Justice Department official close to Sessions said. “I’ve heard him say, ‘We just need to keep pushing on.’ ”
Critics worry that Trump’s attacks are undermining the independence of the Justice Department, pressuring leaders to take steps they otherwise would not to appease a vindictive commander in chief. When Trump demanded an investigation of what he alleged was political spying on his campaign, for example, the department asked the inspector general to look into the matter.
One person who knows Sessions, though, said the attorney general probably thinks “he’s the only person standing between the president and the complete destruction of the Justice Department.” Lawmakers have also conveyed to the president that confirming a successor, particularly in the near term, could be difficult, and the department already lacks many Senate-confirmed leaders.
A spokesman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Tuesday that “given the Senate’s and committee’s schedule, it would be difficult to confirm an AG nominee this year.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told a reporter this week, “I think he is very popular with our members and I hope he’ll remain in the job.”
Sessions has occasionally seemed to jab back at Trump. In February, after Trump criticized Sessions for asking the Justice Department inspector general to explore alleged abusive surveillance of a former member of his campaign, Sessions said in a statement that the department had “initiated the appropriate process” and added: “As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor.”
Later, he was spotted at dinner with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Solicitor General Noel Francisco. Some took the meal as a sign of solidarity, although a person who knows Sessions and discussed the matter with him said Sessions was “surprised that the press actually picked that up and viewed that as a poke.”
More recently, Sessions told the White House counsel that he might have to leave his job if Trump fired Rosenstein, who is now supervising Mueller’s probe.
One person who talks to Sessions said the attorney general, though, was somewhat taken aback by his deputy’s appointment of Mueller as special counsel. Sessions has said publicly he understands the president’s frustrations with the special counsel investigation, and that Mueller’s probe “needs to conclude.”
People close to Trump and Sessions say they doubt Trump will fire Sessions. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, said last week that Trump realized such a move would “backfire.” People close to Sessions said he has also become less irked by the attacks over time.
“It’s almost like they’ve reached this uneasy understanding that the president is going to criticize him and he’s not going to leave,” a person close to Sessions said.
The people acknowledged, though, that the situation might one day change.
“He feels he’s the best man for the job for the present,” a former senior member of Sessions’s staff said. “But he does work for the president and the president is the one who hires and fires. Jeff is of the attitude he’ll continue working as long as he can, trying to implement the president’s goals. If the president decides he doesn’t want him in the job, he’ll tell him and he’ll leave.”