President Donald Trump ran down Jeff Sessions in a Tuesday interview with Hill.TV in some of his most demeaning and personal language to date, insisting “I don’t have an attorney general” and adding: “It’s very sad.”
Trump also noted that his long-running dissatisfaction with Sessions wasn’t based solely in the AG’s decision to recuse himself from the ongoing Justice Department probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election – and began with his performance in the confirmation hearings. Said Trump:
“[Sessions] went through the nominating process and he did very poorly. I mean, he was mixed up and confused, and people that worked with him for, you know, a long time in the Senate were not nice to him, but he was giving very confusing answers. Answers that should have been easily answered. And that was a rough time for him.”
So. Trump a) says he doesn’t have an Attorney General b) believes Sessions did “very poorly” in his confirmation hearings c) thinks Sessions was “mixed up and confused” and 4) sees the whole thing as just “very sad.”
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There appears to be a very simple solution available to Trump here: He could fire Sessions. After all, Trump made his name and his fame on firing people – at least on a reality TV show. And it’s not as though Trump is averse to overhauling his senior advisers – he’s already parted ways with his first secretary of state, head of the EPA, Health and Human Services Secretary and Veterans Affairs chief (among many others) in his first 20 months in office.
And yet, Trump just won’t do it. He seems set on trying to shame Sessions out of office – why would you stay in a job where your boss constantly insults you publicly? – but won’t pull the trigger on jettisoning Sessions himself.
Why not? Here are a few theories:
1) He’s afraid of antagonizing Republican senators
While there has been some slippage in the unified support that GOP senators have expressed for Sessions, he remains someone that his former colleagues like and want to see stay in the job. At the top of that list is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “I have total confidence in the attorney general,” McConnell said earlier this month of Sessions. “I think he ought to stay exactly where he is.” Trump needs the support of Senate Republicans on any number of issues – most importantly (and front of mind) the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Getting rid of Sessions looks like an unnecessary provocation.
2) He’s been told it would make him look guilty on Russia
The biggest ongoing story in Washington – and in the country – is the probe being run by special counsel Robert Mueller. Since Sessions has recused himself from that probe, he can’t exercise any control over it. But firing Sessions would allow Trump to choose a not-recused attorney general who could then, theoretically, either end the investigation or seek to bring it to a timely end. But, to do so – particularly after firing then-FBI Director James Comey last year and repeatedly asserting that the entire investigation is a hoax, a witch hunt and illegal – would make Trump look like he is trying to hide something or obstruct the investigation. It runs directly counter to his assertion that he has done nothing wrong and has nothing to hide.
3) Republicans can’t confirm a replacement
Confirming an attorney general is never an easy task for any president in any context. The nation’s top law enforcement officer has a massive amount of influence and power over the way in which the country is policed, and, because of that power and profile, the president’s pick is often a controversial one. Now, consider that the current attorney general presides over a department not only investigating the interference of a foreign power on our elections (and the possibility that members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to make it happen) but one that has also come under attack from the President for allegedly housing a “deep state” conspiracy out to get him. Short of picking a member of the Senate as his next AG – and maybe not even then – it’s very hard to see how Trump could get his attorney general pick confirmed in short order.
4) The election is in 48 days
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an on-again, off-again Trump whisperer, seemed to be sending the President a clear signal about Sessions’ future earlier in September. “That’s an important office in the country and after the election, I think there will be some serious discussions about a new Attorney General,” Graham told reporters. The message was simple: You can fire Sessions. Just not yet. The concern among Republican strategists – and some senators like Graham – is that Trump firing Sessions any time before the election would roil an electorate that already looks to be shaping up against Republicans.
It may well be a combination of these factors that has kept Trump from telling Sessions to get out. What’s clear is that something – or multiple somethings – are stopping Trump from doing it. He goes right to the edge (“I don’t have an attorney general”) but yet never leaps off.