WEATHER AUTHORITY : Dense Fog Advisory View Alerts

Jeff Sessions weathers turbulent year as attorney general

While Sessions is proud of his first year, friends see signs of stress.

Posted: Jan 28, 2018 11:08 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jeff Sessions was in his office, looking unusually deflated. He had just received another public lashing from President Donald Trump.

Trump had browbeaten his attorney general for months after Sessions' decision to step aside from the intensifying Russia investigation. Never mind that Sessions has proved fiercely devoted to his boss, carrying out Trump's agenda while giving him credit every step of the way. Trump was unforgiving.

This attack came on an autumn day, and Sessions discussed it with a longtime friend and adviser who had stopped by to chat.

Sessions shrugged. "I do the best I can," he said. Then he got back to work.

And, somewhat surprisingly, he's still working.

Sessions will soon mark his first year on the job, having survived a barrage of insults from Trump, antipathy from some Justice Department employees and even calls from some fellow Republicans for him to resign. Last week, America's top law enforcement officer was himself questioned as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible obstruction of justice and Trump campaign ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Trump's relentless attacks have been a wearing distraction, say friends and associates of the former Alabama senator. The Associated Press interviewed more than a dozen of them, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private interactions.

What keeps him going, friends say, is his Methodist faith, support from his wife and his awareness that, at age 71, leading the Justice Department is his best and perhaps final chance to carry out the policy changes he long has sought.

Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump's candidacy, declined to be interviewed for this story but did agree to respond to written questions. He did not directly address his personal relationship with Trump but said his first year was marked by progress on a number of Trump's priorities: fighting crime, combating gangs and helping police.

"We are doing what the people sent us here to do," he said.

While Sessions is proud of his first year, friends see signs of stress. At an annual Justice Department Christmas party, one friend noted, the usually upbeat attorney general looked sullen and tired.

"We have talked about some of the difficult times he's had since he has been attorney general," said the Senate's second-ranking Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, a Sessions' confidant. "My comment to him was, as long as you're doing the right thing, I don't think you have anything to apologize for."

What Sessions sees as doing the right thing, though, often appears to others as doing Trump's bidding.

Critics say Sessions is too loyal, dangerously politicizing his department in an effort to appease Trump. Sessions told senior prosecutors to look into Hillary Clinton's activities after Trump demanded investigations of his 2016 Democratic rival, and he has been eager to pursue investigations into Trump grievances, such as media leaks. Lawmakers accuse Sessions of stonewalling congressional committees investigating the Trump campaign by repeatedly saying he doesn't recall key events.

Some say Sessions' public silence in the face of Trump's assaults on the department is demoralizing to employees and threatens its independence from the White House. Sessions said Friday that it's the department's responsibility to identify past mistakes and that a "culture of defensiveness is not acceptable."

"It seems he recognizes he is in such a weakened position, if he wants to stay in Trump's good graces he has to at least make a show of responding to Trump's demands, and that's extremely dangerous," said William Yeomans, who spent nearly 30 years at the department under Democratic and Republican administrations.

One example that raised eyebrows: Sessions' plan to confront the opioid crisis hews so closely to Trump's that White House aide Kellyanne Conway was on hand in the Justice Department's seventh-floor conference room when he announced it.

Sessions declined to address specific actions by his department but said it carries out "the law without regard to the political consequences or to poll numbers or who benefits and who doesn't," and Trump supports that.

Even if Sessions is complying with Trump's demands and pursuing his agenda, the attorney general has yet to find himself back in favor with the president. Before Sessions' decision to withdraw from the Russia investigation, Trump used to call Sessions periodically and seek his counsel. Now the two men rarely speak, and Sessions at times has resorted to asking West Wing aides to pass messages to Trump.

The rupture stems from Sessions' move on March 2 to step aside from that investigation after acknowledging he had had two previously undisclosed encounters with the Russian ambassador in Washington during Trump's campaign. Sessions said it would be improper for him to oversee an investigation into a campaign in which he played a prominent role.

Trump was furious. Sessions had disregarded a plea from Trump's White House lawyer, Don McGahn, who, at Trump's request, had urged the attorney general to retain oversight of the investigation. But by then, Sessions had already consulted with ethics officials and had made up his mind. Sessions' action left Trump without a close political appointee keeping a hand in the investigation of his campaign,

Sessions offered to resign. Trump declined to accept it. Sacking Sessions would have been politically perilous for the president.

But the barrage of tweets and public and private comments from Trump haven't ended. He disparaged Sessions in comparisons with Eric Holder, whom Trump says he respects for protecting President Barack Obama while serving as attorney general.

Sessions has endured with a courtly stoicism. If he's frustrated, friends said, he mostly keeps it to himself. At a recent get-together with Terry Lathan, a friend and chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party, Sessions seemed more interested in what was going on back home than in complaining about job pressures.

"He's not going to sit around and yank the president's tie in private conversation with a group of his buddies," said Ken Blackwell, a domestic policy adviser to Trump's transition team who has known Sessions for years. "He's more like, this is what we need to get done, how do we get it done?"

Trump's antagonism has distressed Sessions' friends and supporters because they don't believe Sessions' stepping aside from the Russia investigation was a close call. One Sessions' ally said the attorney general's attitude remains that he is going to work 18-hour days to promote the administration's agenda.

Trump's priorities reflect the interests Sessions long has advocated, first as a federal prosecutor and then as a senator: illegal immigration, violent crime, illegal drugs, defending the rights of those who say they've been discriminated against based on religion.

"President Trump knows how to give clear orders, and he told us to reduce crime, take on the gangs and cartels, and back the men and women in blue," Sessions said. "The good news for us is that these directives are exactly what I want to do."

That agenda has unsettled liberals who say Sessions' focus on tough prosecutions marks a return to failed tactics that unduly hurt minorities and the poor. They say his rollbacks of protections for gay and transgender people amount to discrimination.

For Sessions, there's satisfaction in being able to reverse Obama-era policies that he and other conservatives say flouted the will of Congress. "The progress he has made has been very gratifying to him," said former Attorney General Ed Meese, who sees Sessions periodically.

Sessions takes pride in his many visits to U.S. attorney offices, where he speaks with local authorities, some of his most ardent fans, about how the federal government can help them. During a particularly tense stretch in November, when Sessions faced attacks from Trump and members of Congress, department officials held a call urging law enforcement groups to be vocally supportive of him, a person familiar with the call said.

Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs' Association, recalled a December meeting when Sessions said he had to cut his appearance short. His voice was hoarse and he lamented his full schedule.

"He said, 'I wish I could sit here and talk with you all day,'" before his staff moved him along, said Thompson.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 515504

Reported Deaths: 10296
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34999558
DeSoto33360432
Hinds32743643
Jackson24906392
Rankin22565405
Lee16455245
Madison14954283
Jones14158248
Forrest13834260
Lauderdale12311323
Lowndes11357193
Lamar10693140
Pearl River9748244
Lafayette8868143
Hancock7849132
Washington7559169
Oktibbeha7229138
Monroe7068179
Pontotoc7033110
Warren6885178
Panola6791135
Neshoba6744210
Marshall6707142
Bolivar6468151
Union643598
Pike5942157
Alcorn5921107
Lincoln5540136
George510680
Prentiss508285
Tippah495683
Itawamba4884107
Scott478999
Tate4777117
Adams4776125
Leflore4749144
Copiah458195
Yazoo458092
Simpson4566117
Wayne443472
Covington434895
Sunflower4319106
Marion4295112
Coahoma4244110
Leake414191
Newton396182
Tishomingo386894
Grenada3789109
Stone366166
Jasper341266
Attala340490
Chickasaw318367
Winston318392
Clay312978
Clarke301695
Calhoun286850
Holmes272889
Smith270552
Yalobusha244947
Tallahatchie232353
Greene225149
Walthall222166
Lawrence220242
Perry214556
Amite210357
Webster206548
Noxubee188843
Montgomery182157
Carroll175441
Jefferson Davis174343
Tunica163539
Benton153139
Kemper145441
Choctaw137027
Claiborne134839
Humphreys132239
Franklin126530
Quitman107828
Wilkinson106139
Jefferson97134
Sharkey65321
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 848137

Reported Deaths: 16185
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1164052005
Mobile743681384
Madison53497738
Shelby38435371
Baldwin38195589
Tuscaloosa36152644
Montgomery34562782
Lee25655264
Calhoun22630520
Morgan22530411
Etowah20069520
Marshall18846318
Houston17777426
St. Clair16958359
Limestone16195220
Cullman16157306
Elmore15940295
Lauderdale15069307
Talladega14260302
DeKalb13083271
Walker12168380
Blount10779193
Autauga10560157
Jackson10214196
Coffee9435192
Colbert9366210
Dale9044192
Tallapoosa7285202
Russell710065
Chilton7090170
Covington6969197
Escambia6967144
Franklin6364108
Chambers5801142
Marion5437132
Dallas5302210
Pike5129109
Clarke485786
Lawrence4850130
Winston4793110
Geneva4655136
Bibb435795
Barbour370680
Butler3444101
Marengo342993
Monroe338366
Randolph337867
Pickens334890
Fayette331785
Henry321166
Cherokee320364
Hale319189
Crenshaw261678
Washington256852
Cleburne255460
Lamar253555
Clay252969
Macon246367
Conecuh193562
Coosa186048
Wilcox178538
Lowndes178468
Bullock152845
Perry141840
Sumter139841
Greene130545
Choctaw94428
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Cloudy
61° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 61°
Columbus
Cloudy
61° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 61°
Oxford
Cloudy
° wxIcon
Hi: 72° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: °
Starkville
Cloudy
61° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 61°
A few thunderstorms will likely spring up on Sunday ahead of an incoming cold front that will arrive Monday and bring widespread rain and lower temperatures.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather