Over the past year and a half, and as recently as the last several weeks, Trump has broached the idea of firing Jeff Sessions several times, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversations. Each time his aides and advisers have staved off his impulse, arguing to the President that such a move could damage him politically and present further problems with special counsel Robert Mueller.
Trump has responded by insisting has the “absolute right” to fire Sessions if he pleases, those familiar with the conversations said. But he’s taken his team’s advice until now because he believes his attempts to discredit Mueller are working and accepts the argument that dismissing his attorney general could cloud that effort.
Despite his repeated public criticism, Trump has told people he is wary of crossing a line with Mueller by firing Sessions.
The loathing, which was never private, continued this week as Sessions sought to defend himself against Trump’s insults. In the span of a day, Trump accused the attorney general he appointed of failing to assume full control of the agency he leads, executing acts of severe disloyalty and allowing injustice to prevail. At one point, he even seemed to question his manhood.
“Even my enemies say that Jeff Sessions should have told you that he was going to recuse himself and then you wouldn’t have put him in,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News this week. “He took the job and then he said I’m going to recuse myself. I said what kind of a man is this?”
Sessions responded in a written statement Thursday.
“While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations,” he said. Minutes later he was arriving at the White House in a black SUV for a previously scheduled meeting on prison legislation.
Trump did not address his feud when seated across from Sessions in the Oval Office, a person in the room said. Instead, the two men agreed on several points made during the meeting about a prison and sentencing overhaul bill, and Sessions left the White House with his job intact.
Still, Trump spent Thursday night fuming over Sessions’ statement, CNN is told, leading to another outburst on Twitter Friday morning.
“Come on Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting!” he wrote, calling on Sessions to initiate investigations into a long list of the President’s political enemies.
Typically, presidents at odds with members of their own teams take steps to paper over the disagreements in public, even as they privately air their grievances. Trump has taken the opposite approach: making his displeasure known loudly while avoiding direct confrontation behind the scenes.
Two people familiar with the President’s thinking say this is classic Trump, because he does not tend to be as confrontational in person, despite his self-described penchant for fighting back.
Instead, as he has clashed with his attorney general for more than a year now, Trump has preferred airing his complaints publicly on Twitter or privately through emissaries, who he will ask to deliver harshly worded messages to Sessions.
Trump and Sessions rarely, if ever, speak on the phone, two sources familiar with their relationship tell CNN.
Sessions responded Thursday, according to a source familiar with the attorney general’s thinking, in part because the President said on Fox News that he “never took control of the Justice Department” — a “macro” criticism that struck a different tone than Trump’s more granular gripes on Twitter about individual cases like former FBI employees Lisa Page and Peter Strzok.
Can a replacement be confirmed?
Trump’s lead attorney Rudy Giuliani has advised the President that firing Sessions would complicate their efforts to impugn the special counsel, according to aides. Meanwhile, some of Trump’s legislative staffers have warned that a confirmation battle to replace Sessions would prove difficult, particularly if Sessions’ ousting is viewed as an attempt to short-circuit Mueller’s probe.
Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have largely been supportive of Sessions, a former colleague, have previously warned of the battle in confirming a replacement.
Trump has largely dismissed those concerns in private, according to officials, saying he would have no trouble naming a new attorney general who would be quickly approved by the Senate. And some questions about the Senate’s willingness to confirm a new attorney general seemed to lift this week.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is a Trump friend, said the President could replace Sessions after November’s midterm elections.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who’s the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, indicated his committee would have time to work through any new nominations later this year, but said that had nothing to do with Sessions.
“I’m not going to speculate on what the President might do. But I can tell you Jeff Sessions has always been a friend and is still a friend,” Grassley said on Thursday. In previous cases when Trump’s criticisms of Sessions have ratcheted up, Grassley has said the committee’s calendar was packed when he was asked about the prospect of confirming a new attorney general.
Allies of the attorney general were stunned when Sessions pushed back as forcefully as he did Thursday in the bluntly worded statement warning the President not to interfere with federal law enforcement. Two people close to Sessions noted it was a reversal in tactic from when Trump first began assailing him last year. He told friends then that he was going to keep his head down and continue working quietly on carrying out the administration’s agenda at the Justice Department. One person noted that Sessions now seemed like he was daring Trump to fire him.
That the President hasn’t yet is concerning to some.
“What I worry about is that, you know, the President is head of the executive branch and he decides who serves in his Cabinet. To continue to criticize the attorney general, I think, makes the President appear weak,” Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush, told CNN’s “New Day” on Friday morning.
“If there is, in fact, displeasure in his service, then he has an obligation, from my perspective, to make a change,” he said.
CNN’s Jim Acosta and Laura Jarrett contributed to this report.