Amid Trump Tweet Storm, Sessions Holds Firm
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
President Trump has made it clear that he is very unhappy with his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. He says he's frustrated that Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation and because the AG hasn't been aggressive enough against Hillary Clinton and government leakers. That criticism didn't stop today. Here's President Trump at a press conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I told you before I'm very disappointed with the attorney general. But we will see what happens. Time will tell. Time will tell.
MCEVERS: On Twitter this week, the president called Sessions beleaguered and very weak. But if the rhetoric is designed to push the attorney general to quit, that hasn't happened - at least not yet. With us to talk more about this is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey there.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So the president, as we said, had a lot to say on Twitter today and yesterday, not just about Sessions but also about the acting FBI director. Is that right?
JOHNSON: Absolutely. It was another festival of mean tweets here in Washington. First, President Trump called Sessions very weak for, he said, not prosecuting his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, over her emails. The president also had words for then-acting FBI Director Andy McCabe. Trump accused him of getting money from Clinton for his wife's Virginia Senate campaign. Kelly, there's a problem with that. Attorney General Sessions recused himself from anything to do with the Clinton campaign back in January, and the FBI director did not solicit money for his wife. By the way, Andy McCabe is only leading the FBI because Trump fired James Comey.
MCEVERS: So beyond all of this, is there something more at stake, I mean, when it comes to the independence of the Justice Department here?
JOHNSON: Yeah, and we're hearing some bipartisan outcry. The Justice Department and the FBI are supposed to be insulated from political pressure, especially when it comes to criminal investigations. Donald Trump is beating up the attorney general and the FBI for not going after his political enemies and not shutting down the investigation into Russian interference in the election to Justice veterans. Those are really improper motives. The president isn't even hiding them. He's broadcasting them around the world on Twitter and interviews, at that press conference today. And even people who don't like Jeff Sessions are speaking up now to defend the rule of law.
MCEVERS: The president has criticized this attorney general before. What's different this time?
JOHNSON: Well, one important thing - Republican senators are presenting a mostly united front in support of Jeff Sessions today. Of course, he's their former Senate colleague for some 20 years. They said they may not always agree with him or his policies, but he has integrity. And they said he did the right thing by recusing himself from overseeing the Russia probe because he was on line with the Trump campaign. Many of these Republicans say they look forward to continuing to work with Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department, and conservative magazines and websites like Breitbart are weighing in in support for Jeff Sessions, too.
MCEVERS: Jeff Sessions was Donald Trump's first and most vocal supporter in Congress from - you know, we remember that from the campaign. How could this relationship have gotten so bad in just six months?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Remember the president once said Jeff Sessions had a brilliant legal mind. There was no one better to run the Justice Department. But once Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, that triggered a deep anger in the president. He - sources tell me he started to berate Sessions in person and over the phone - some profane phone calls. At one point, Sessions even offered to resign a few months back. Trump said no. Now he seems to be trying to push Sessions to quit. But, Kelly, so far Sessions is holding firm. He gave up his safe Senate seat. He's in the twilight of his career. The message from Justice is he showed up for work this morning at 6 a.m., exercised at the gym, and he's undergoing business as usual.
MCEVERS: I mean, Democrats say that they're worried that the president could still fire Jeff Sessions and then basically appoint a replacement during the August recess. Is that likely?
JOHNSON: Well, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York came out today. He says he's concerned this is all part of a plan to get rid of Sessions and find someone to fire the special counsel leading the Russia probe, Robert Mueller. Schumer says Senate Democrats have some tricks up their sleeve, procedures that might prevent the White House from installing a new leader for the Justice Department during the recess next month. Look for that to happen if it seems like Donald Trump wants to fire Jeff Sessions and install somebody else at Justice in August.
MCEVERS: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks a lot.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.