When Jeff Sessions finally called Trump's bluff

The walk down Pennsylvania Avenue was short, but the image was a show of force.The top three officials at the ...

Posted: Mar 2, 2018 9:07 AM
Updated: Mar 2, 2018 9:07 AM

The walk down Pennsylvania Avenue was short, but the image was a show of force.

The top three officials at the Justice Department strolled to dinner together Wednesday evening with smiles less than eight hours after Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched his first public rebuttal to President Donald Trump's latest fusillade on Sessions' "disgraceful" handling of Republican allegations of surveillance abuses at the department and FBI.

The images of Justice Department solidarity ricocheted through Washington, not so much because the three officials chose to dine publicly, but that they did so on a night that proved to be a turning point.

Behind the scenes earlier Wednesday morning, senior Justice officials were keenly aware that any response from Sessions could be viewed as a brushback to the President, as a source close to Sessions explained it, and crafted a statement with the intent of not going an inch further than necessary to defend the department. A second source inside the building said the President's tweet, which landed at 9:34 am, was greeted with some measure of disbelief, but also surprise.

Sessions was prepared to accept the consequences, but the purpose wasn't to pick a fight, the source said -- "he's still loyal to the President."

By Wednesday afternoon, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a friend of Sessions, was on Fox News addressing the attorney general's fractured relationship with Trump and suggesting the tweet missed the mark.

"The President is wrong," said Mukasey. "And he doesn't know his own interests."

Sessions still at it

More than 24 hours later, the attorney general still has his job. In fact, Sessions went back to business as usual Thursday, speaking at a summit at the White House aimed at highlighting the Trump administration's efforts to combat the opioid crisis. The President later briefly acknowledged Sessions, seated in the front row, during his own remarks at the event, noting their conversation about potential lawsuits against drug manufacturers. But the two men were not seen directly interacting at the event.

Trump privately fumed Wednesday after Sessions released his statement vowing to carry out his duties with "integrity" and invoking the Constitution; a source familiar with the President's demeanor described Trump as indignant.

When asked Thursday if Trump wants to fire Sessions, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders demurred: "Not that I know of."

But others who surround the President readily acknowledged how broken their relationship is at this point. Those familiar with Trump's thinking say he has never privately backed off his criticism of his attorney general and were prepared for it to resurface. The President at times had rolled his eyes when Sessions appeared on screen or largely ignored him when the two were in the same meeting. Trump also often grumbles about Sessions to his friends and allies, leaving those he's speaking with wondering why he doesn't just fire him.

Yet any realistic hope of getting another attorney general confirmed by the Senate appears dim, as two key senators on the Judiciary Committee voiced support for Sessions Thursday.

Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who recently feuded with Sessions over criminal justice reform issues, told reporters he has confidence in the attorney general and that he should be allowed to do his job. And Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham said he thinks Sessions is doing "a fine job."

"But, if you want to blow up the Senate, try to find an attorney general to replace Jeff Sessions under these circumstances," Graham quipped.

Brushback pitch

Some Justice Department veterans say Sessions ultimately made the right call.

"It's kinda like baseball. The President threw a pitch at Jeff Sessions' head and he was able to duck before it hit him," said Jamil Jaffer, founder of the National Security Institute and former associate White House counsel under President George W. Bush.

"The attorney general then would have been well within his rights -- at least as far as baseball etiquette goes -- to throw back at the President's head, but instead he decided to throw a hard inside fastball, just enough to brush him back off the plate, but not enough to start a beanball war," Jaffer said.

But Sessions' attempt to strike the right tone in defending his department and his own response to allegations of the FBI's surveillance abuses in the Russia investigation came as no comfort to the President.

His advisers were also surprised by his tweet -- which slammed Sessions for referring a matter to the inspector general's office that has "no prosecutorial power" -- because they had never heard Trump articulate such complaints at that level of detail before. Some even speculated Trump crafted the tweet after being counseled by someone outside of the administration.

While Trump and Sessions' irreconcilable differences have bubbled to the surface periodically since Sessions stepped aside from overseeing the Russia investigation less than a month into his tenure as attorney general last March, a d-tente of sorts had appeared to set over the past several months.

At an event in January, for example, Trump convened a meeting on prison reform at the White House. During the meeting, according to a source, the President turned to Sessions about three times for input and asked him to wrap up the meeting. Once it was over, however, they didn't linger.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 471092

Reported Deaths: 9165
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison32160471
Hinds30628574
DeSoto29693344
Jackson23098335
Rankin21062357
Lee14515218
Madison13993264
Jones13112218
Forrest12926231
Lauderdale11301294
Lowndes10206171
Lamar10017125
Pearl River8616208
Lafayette8052136
Hancock7172111
Washington6816146
Oktibbeha6799117
Neshoba6377201
Monroe6343158
Warren6310159
Pontotoc607692
Panola6056123
Bolivar5991143
Marshall5948116
Union562385
Pike5450133
Lincoln5217129
Alcorn516288
George456466
Scott450392
Leflore4392140
Prentiss435275
Itawamba433295
Tippah432480
Simpson4251110
Copiah424784
Wayne422363
Tate4202100
Adams4184110
Yazoo412486
Sunflower4077104
Covington406591
Marion4016100
Leake390485
Coahoma387098
Newton361674
Grenada3511100
Stone343757
Tishomingo323788
Attala319685
Jasper309562
Winston299191
Clay286172
Chickasaw280564
Clarke275587
Calhoun258539
Holmes258585
Smith242246
Yalobusha216447
Tallahatchie214949
Walthall204657
Lawrence203231
Greene202645
Perry195753
Webster191642
Amite191451
Noxubee174438
Montgomery169453
Jefferson Davis164341
Carroll159437
Tunica147634
Benton138232
Kemper136939
Claiborne125534
Choctaw124424
Humphreys123037
Franklin114327
Quitman101425
Wilkinson98435
Jefferson86332
Sharkey61720
Issaquena1916
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 761865

Reported Deaths: 12856
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1087131712
Mobile696141168
Madison47959565
Baldwin35517431
Shelby34948283
Tuscaloosa32719498
Montgomery32358648
Lee21708200
Calhoun19823367
Morgan19140308
Etowah18450414
Marshall17138255
Houston15970340
St. Clair14803270
Limestone13986179
Elmore13893240
Cullman13892229
Lauderdale12986264
Talladega12235203
DeKalb11788220
Walker10110304
Autauga9416120
Blount9329149
Jackson9026132
Coffee8598153
Colbert8257160
Dale8204143
Escambia639399
Tallapoosa6315165
Covington6265153
Chilton6188128
Russell588353
Franklin560093
Chambers5182127
Dallas4595174
Marion4540114
Clarke447871
Pike441488
Geneva419499
Winston402682
Lawrence4018101
Bibb392976
Barbour335567
Marengo318878
Monroe308244
Butler307679
Pickens297366
Henry290752
Randolph290055
Hale284081
Cherokee277249
Fayette269769
Washington242244
Crenshaw229463
Clay220261
Macon212554
Cleburne207346
Lamar185538
Conecuh175237
Lowndes168156
Coosa161531
Wilcox153533
Bullock146242
Perry133132
Sumter122735
Greene118241
Choctaw71925
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