Attorney General Jeff Sessions was making good on a key Trump campaign promise in late July when he announced a religious liberty task force at the Justice Department aimed at eliminating barriers to Americans’ free exercise of their faith.
It drew the kind of reaction President Trump seems to like: thrilling evangelical leaders who are influential with his political base and outraging liberal activists who comprise the Trump resistance.
Yet the next day, Mr. Trump was on Twitter blasting Mr. Sessions for failing to rein in the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Over the course of August, the president’s attacks on his attorney general intensified. Mr. Trump called him “scared stiff” and “missing in action.”
The vitriol Mr. Trump has shown Mr. Sessions is stunning for someone who was among his earliest campaign backers and has been at the spear’s tip of advancing the Trump agenda in the government.
Mr. Sessions has overturned the Obama administration’s prosecution rules, sued sanctuary cities, poured resources into combating the opioid epidemic, backed up the president’s assertions on violent crime and even shaped antitrust policies in line with Mr. Trump’s philosophy.
His record is unsurpassed by any other Trump aide. Yet no Cabinet officer has endured more abuse from the president, who has blasted Mr. Sessions in 22 tweets since taking office.
Mr. Trump told Bloomberg News on Thursday that Mr. Sessions’ job is safe for now, but he made no promises about the attorney general’s fate after the midterm elections.
“I would just love to have him do a great job,” Mr. Trump said.
Longtime Sessions allies say that is not fair to someone who backed Mr. Trump from the start.
“Jeff knows he was in the foxhole with the president when the president could have done a 360 turn and not bumped into anyone else,” said Ken Blackwell, an adviser to the Trump transition team. “So to have the president even questioning his intelligence, integrity or loyalty, I’m sure that has Jeff frustrated.”
He said Mr. Sessions is the administration’s ace.
“Trump knows he could get rid of Sessions if he wanted to,” he said. “But if he’s really that frustrated, why doesn’t he do it? Because the president’s not dumb. He knows what Jeff Sessions’ wins mean to his base. Jeff Sessions is every bit as valuable to this administration as Chris Sale is to the Red Sox.”
‘Beyond what the president wants’
Nowhere has Mr. Sessions’ work on behalf of the Trump agenda been more prominent than immigration, where he has sued sanctuary cities, facilitated efforts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals deportation amnesty, pushed to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, added judges to speed up deportations and rewritten the rules for asylum to clamp down on the flow of Central Americans hoping to take advantage of lax definitions.
He also led the ill-fated, zero-tolerance border policy that resulted in family separations, which the president scrapped in June after public outcry.
“A lot of conservatives are anti-immigration, but its hard to say if they would have gone as far as Sessions,” said Elliot Mincberg, a longtime Sessions critic and senior counsel for People for the American Way, a left-leaning advocacy group.
Mr. Sessions also has taken the lead on Mr. Trump’s promises to eradicate the MS-13 gang, to combat the scourge of opioid addiction and to reverse what they saw as intrusive Obama-era intervention in local policing policies.
Former Attorney General Edwin Meese III said Mr. Sessions’ frequent speeches offering support to law enforcement are part of that.
“He has gone beyond what the president wants because there are lot of things the president wants when it comes to dealing with police departments and support of federal law,” Mr. Meese said. “It doesn’t involve a specific policy, but he is still carrying out the president’s agenda by doing those things. It’s what I would do if I were attorney general today.”
It opposed the $85 billion merger between AT&T and Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, which Mr. Trump views as an enemy. Yet nearly one year later, Disney was able to secure approval for its $52 billion merger with 21st Century Fox, which owns Fox News, a network viewed as favorable to the president. Mr. Trump even called 21st Century Fox Executive co-Chairman Rupert Murdoch to congratulate him on the deal.
“I don’t know how much direct influence the president had, but clearly this is an indirect influence that exists in the public domain because the president’s comments become news stories,” said Andre Barlow, an antitrust lawyer with Doyle, Barlow & Mazard.
Executives at AT&T and Time Warner thought there was an influence. They said the lawsuit was motivated by Mr. Trump’s animosity toward CNN and made that argument in court papers ahead of the trial.
“Politics matters, and appointees take on the policies of the president,” Mr. Barlow said. “President Trump made statements during the campaign that he would block the AT&T/Time Warner deal. There is some influence in terms of politics, but there is also a change in terms of the administration’s view on antitrust remedies.”
Russian meddling probe
For Mr. Trump and his most ardent backers, Mr. Sessions has one failing that overshadows the progress he has made on their agenda: the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
As questions of collusion surrounded the young Trump administration last year, Mr. Sessions recused himself from decisions related to it after acknowledging that, as a Trump surrogate, he had met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in his role as a senator. The contact seems innocent enough, given what is known about it, but intense negative press coverage forced the recusal.
That left Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge. After Mr. Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, Mr. Rosenstein named a special counsel to investigate Russian meddling. In May 2017, he appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate.
The president has viewed Mr. Sessions’ recusal decision as a breach of loyalty.
He and others also say Mr. Sessions could take the offensive by announcing investigations of failed 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, fired FBI agent Peter Strzok or other irregularities surrounding the election.
Steve Cortes, who worked on the Trump campaign, called Mr. Sessions “a terrible attorney general.”
“He’s been a solid conservative when it comes to the nuts and bolts aspect of the Department of Justice, and we can’t quibble with that, but those victories, while significant, don’t overcome the massive failures into recusing himself from the Mueller inquest and lack of investigation into the Obama Department of Justice,” Mr. Cortes said.
But firing Mr. Sessions presents its own issues.
The move could be construed as obstruction of justice by attempting to undermine the Mueller investigation, and there is no obvious, easy replacement.
In the immediate term, Mr. Rosenstein would become acting attorney general, and his relationship with Mr. Trump is no better than Mr. Sessions’. Getting a full replacement confirmed in the Senate also could be tricky.
“Conservatives who hate Jeff Sessions live in some kind of fantasy land,” said J. Christian Adams, who served as a lawyer in the Justice Department’s civil rights division from 2005 through 2010. “If Sessions is gone, Rod Rosenstein is the attorney general while Trump tries to get Senate votes for his nominee, which could take months. That could be nine months where Rod Rosenstein is attorney general. What conservative would want that world? An insane one.”
Even those on the other side of the ideological spectrum marvel that Mr. Trump may oust such a major player in advancing the Trump agenda.
“In a lot of ways, Sessions is exactly the attorney general Donald Trump wants to carry out his substantive agenda, but Trump his demanding a lot of loyalty that is even too great for someone like Jeff Sessions, who has been such a staunch supporter of President Trump,” Mr. Mincberg said.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who served with Mr. Sessions and warned of a party revolt if Mr. Trump fired him, said last week that the relationship between the two men is frayed “beyond repair.”
“The president has lost confidence in Jeff Sessions,” he told NBC. “I’m telling you what everybody in the country knows. This is a dysfunctional relationship; we need a better one.”
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