By Jonathan Lemire & Jill Colvin
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump turned up the heat on Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday, launching a fresh Twitter tirade against him while musing privately about firing the man who was the first U.S. senator to endorse his candidacy.
The future of the nation’s top law enforcement officer seemed to hang in the balance as pressure on him to resign mounted by the hour, even as the pushback to Trump’s extraordinary public rebuke began from fellow Republicans.
The president’s latest broadside came in the form of early morning tweet: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!”
Trump’s intensifying condemnation of Sessions has fueled speculation that the attorney general may step down even if Trump opts not to fire him. The president’s anger over Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the government’s investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. election had burst into public view Monday when he referred to Sessions in a tweet as “beleaguered.”
Privately, Trump has speculated aloud to allies in recent days about the potential consequences of firing Sessions, according to three people who have recently spoken to the president. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
But the president’s ongoing criticism of Sessions drew a fiery response from one of his former Senate colleagues on Tuesday, suggesting that all Republicans may not fall in line behind any effort to oust the attorney general.
“Jeff Sessions is one of the most decent people I’ve ever met in my political life,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. “President Trump’s tweet today suggesting Attorney General Sessions pursue prosecution of a former political rival is highly inappropriate.”
Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Thom Tillis of North Carolina also voiced support of their former colleague. But the White House only turned up the heat further.
Anthony Scaramucci, the president’s new communications director, said in a morning interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt that Trump is “obviously frustrated” and that the two men “need to work this thing out.”
Scaramucci then replied “you’re probably right” when Hewitt says it’s clear that Trump wants Sessions gone.
And White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” that the president is “frustrated and disappointed” with Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe.
“That frustration certainly hasn’t gone away. And I don’t think it will,” she said.
And House Speaker Paul Ryan punted Tuesday on a chance to defend Sessions, saying “the president gets to decide what his personnel is.”
Trump often talks about making staff changes without following through, so those who have spoken with the president cautioned that a change may not be imminent or happen at all.
“So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?” the president tweeted Monday. His tweet came just hours before his son-in-law, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, traveled to Capitol Hill to be interviewed about his meetings with Russians.
Trump’s rapid-fire tweeting resumed at daybreak Tuesday, with the president wondering aloud about Sessions’ “VERY weak” position on “Hillary Clinton crimes.”
In another post to his Twitter account, Trump said: “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign — quietly working to boost Clinton. So where is the investigation A.G.”
The attorney general said last week he intended to stay in his post. During an event at the White House on Monday, Trump ignored a shouted question about whether Sessions should step down.
If Trump were to fire Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would be elevated to the top post on an acting basis. That would leave the president with another attorney general of whom he has been sharply critical in both public and private for his handling of the Russia probe, according to four White House and outside advisers who, like others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
It could also raise the specter of Trump asking Rosenstein — or whomever he appoints to fill the position — to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and potential collusion with Trump’s campaign.
The name of one longtime Trump ally, Rudy Giuliani, was floated Monday as a possible replacement for Sessions, but a person who recently spoke to the former New York City mayor said that Giuliani had not been approached about the position. Giuliani told CNN on Monday that he did not want the post and would have recused himself had he been in Sessions’ position.
The president’s tweet about the former Alabama senator comes less than a week after Trump, in a New York Times interview, said that Sessions should never have taken the job as attorney general if he was going to recuse himself. Sessions made that decision after it was revealed that he had met with a top Russian diplomat last year.
Trump has seethed about Sessions’ decision for months, viewing it as disloyal — arguably the most grievous offense in the president’s mind — and resenting that the attorney general did not give the White House a proper heads-up before making the announcement that he would recuse himself. His fury has been fanned by several close confidants — including his son Donald Trump Jr, who is also ensnared in the Russia probe — who are angry that Sessions made his decision.
Trump and Sessions’ conversations in recent weeks have been infrequent. Sessions had recently asked senior White House staff how he might patch up relations with the president but that effort did not go anywhere, according to a person briefed on the conversations.
Sessions and Trump used to be close, sharing both a friendship and an ideology. Sessions risked his reputation when he became the first U.S. senator to endorse the celebrity businessman and his early backing gave Trump legitimacy, especially among the hard-line anti-immigration forces that bolstered his candidacy.