Two key Republican senators signaled to President Trump that he could replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the midterm elections in November, a move that would open the way for firing Robert Mueller or constraining his probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
‘‘The president’s entitled to an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that’s qualified for the job, and I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice,’’ Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who may be in line to head the Judiciary Committee next year, told reporters Thursday. ‘‘Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn’t have the confidence of the president.’’
Sessions defended his performance in a statement Thursday, saying, ‘‘While I am Attorney General, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.’’
Graham warned against acting against Sessions before the election, calling that possibility ‘‘a nonstarter.’’ That ‘‘would create havoc’’ with Senate efforts to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and with the midterm elections in November, he said.
That represents a significant shift from Graham’s stance a year ago, when he warned Trump publicly that if he fired Sessions ‘‘there will be holy hell to pay.’’
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the current Judiciary chairman, also changed his position Thursday, saying in an interview that he’d be able to make time for hearings for a new attorney general after saying in the past that the panel was too busy to tackle that explosive possibility.
The two senators spoke as two federal investigations are drawing closer to the president. Mueller’s probe is newly energized after the conviction of Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Trump potentially faces a separate Justice Department investigation into campaign violations sparked by the guilty plea of his former lawyer Michael Cohen.
Trump often takes aim at Sessions, a former Republican senator he has attacked and ridiculed for recusing himself from the investigation into Russian interference election that’s now being run by Mueller. Trump has called the inquiry into whether anyone close to him conspired with the Russians a ‘‘witch hunt’’ and mocked ‘‘the Jeff Sessions ‘Justice’ Department”’ on Twitter.
Graham has provided a sometimes confounding mix of criticism and praise for Trump, who occasionally invites the senator to golf at one of his resorts. It wasn’t clear why Graham would publicly predict Trump will take such a politically explosive action even as the senator said it should be delayed.
Graham’s comments could be sending a message that Mueller faces a deadline to finish his Russia investigation before November’s election that will determine whether Republicans continue to control the House and Senate.
If Trump replaces Sessions -- who has so far resisted Trump’s very public hints that he should resign -- a new attorney general could take over the investigation and fire Mueller or cripple his probe.
Trump wouldn’t need to wait until his new choice for attorney general was confirmed by the Senate, which would be a difficult fight. He could install an interim attorney general directly after ousting Sessions, although some legal experts argue that the powers of such an interim appointee would be limited.
‘‘We have somebody who they seem to go after a lot of Republicans,’’ Trump said of Sessions in an interview with Fox News that aired Thursday, adding that the inability of his attorney general to ‘‘control’’ his department was ‘‘a regrettable thing.’’
Grassley Has Time
Asked about a possible replacement for Sessions, Grassley took a different position from a year ago, when he warned the White House he didn’t have time to do another confirmation hearing that year.
‘‘I do have time for hearings on nominees that the president might send up here that I didn’t have last year,’’ Grassley of Iowa said Thursday. Grassley has clashed with Sessions this year because of the attorney general’s intense opposition to Grassley’s efforts to pass a criminal justice overhaul.
Grassley said, though, that Kavanaugh’s confirmation would take precedence over any other nominees Trump might send to the Senate.
Grassley declined to comment specifically on the fate of Sessions when asked about Graham’s prediction the president will replace him after the election.