Senate Republicans are sending decidedly mixed messages about how they feel about the future of Attorney General Jeff Sessions amid unrelenting criticism from President Donald Trump.
Key GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have signaled in recent days they’d be open to replacing Sessions after the midterm elections. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, threw his weight behind Sessions Tuesday in no uncertain terms.
“I have total confidence in the attorney general. I think he ought to stay exactly where he is,” McConnell told reporters.
A source close to Sessions told CNN that he spoke with McConnell last week, and Sessions has received a number of calls of support behind the scenes from his former colleagues after last week’s dust-up with Trump.
But Sessions’ tense relationship with Trump may only be one factor in the shift in support for Sessions on Capitol Hill from some of his earlier defenders.
While Trump’s sustained criticism of Sessions has left some Republicans questioning the productivity and longevity of Sessions’ tenure at the Justice Department, a person familiar with the ongoing mood of the Republican conference told CNN that there is also frustration with Sessions’ concrete policy difference with senators on issues like sentencing reform and legalizing marijuana.
According to the person familiar, Sessions’ team is “counting their friends” right now and while last year or even a few months ago people were more willing to dive in to help, fewer are “rushing to the microphone to defend him.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who previously warned against firing Sessions, said last week that he has more time for hearings on nominations now than he did last year. For months, Grassley has butted heads with Sessions over criminal justice reform, which bubbled over again last week into public view.
After Grassley made the comments about having time for another nomination hearing – an insinuation that Sessions could be replaced – a source close to Sessions said at the time that the attorney general wasn’t going to be “blackmailed” into supporting a criminal justice bill he didn’t agree with or thinks undermines the criminal justice system.
On Tuesday, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham also dug in and said that Trump’s relationship with Sessions was “beyond repair” and suggested the attorney general should be replaced after the midterms.
“The President has lost confidence in Jeff Sessions. I’m telling you what everybody in the country knows, this is a dysfunctional relationship, we need a better one,” the South Carolina Republican said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show.
Some senators still deny that Sessions is in a worse position than he was a few months ago even as they say it’s been tough to watch their former colleague repeatedly berated by Trump on Twitter.
“I am always surprised. If I have a problem with a staff member or if I have a disagreement with a staff member, I go talk to him. I don’t tweet about it,” Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, said.
Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Republican, disagreed that Sessions was losing support in the Senate and said he thought “people are just looking at the tea leaves in terms of what the President is saying and trying to divine what that means for Jeff, but I don’t think he’s lost support up here.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, told CNN at this point, a lot of Republicans just feel bad for Sessions, a former GOP senator from Alabama.
“He was a colleague. We all respect him. We feel bad for him, truthfully. This isn’t good to see. I don’t like to see this kind of public division and this thing play out in public,” Johnson said.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, said she doesn’t know if Sessions is losing support among her colleagues, but “not among people I have talked to.”
“They’ve got a challenging relationship, the attorney general and the President, that’s known to all and they’ll have to work it out one way or another. Sessions is an old friend of mine, I worked with him for 20 years. I have a lot of respect for him, but at the same time he works for the President,” said Sen. Dick Shelby, a Republican from Alabama where Sessions once served. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think both of them need to put the nation first.”
CNN’s Sunlen Serfaty, Ashley Killough and Kristin Wilson contributed to this report.