Politics

Will Jeff Sessions keep his job? ‘We’ll see what happens,’ Trump says

WASHINGTON — The public standoff between the White House and the nation’s senior law enforcement official took another strange turn Tuesday as President Trump escalated his verbal attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was urged by fellow conservatives to stand his ground.

Trump was asked at a Rose Garden news conference if he would fire the attorney general, who angered the president by recusing himself from the criminal probe into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.

‘‘We’ll see what happens,’’ said Trump, a potentially ominous choice of phrase, considering the president used the same expression when talking to FBI Director James Comey before he was fired.

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‘‘I’m disappointed in the attorney general,’’ Trump said. ‘‘If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office, and I would have picked somebody else. It’s a bad thing not just for the president, but also for the presidency. I think it’s unfair to the presidency.’’

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He said he wanted Sessions ‘‘to be much tougher on leaks in the intelligence agencies that are leaking like they never have before. . . . You can’t let that happen.’’

Sessions showed no sign of buckling Tuesday, and in fact his position was bolstered by support from prominent conservatives taking his side in the fight with Trump.

Trump’s reluctance to act on his anger and fire Sessions may be based in part on the lack of an immediate plan for a successor at the Justice Department. While Trump has discussed potential candidates to replace Sessions, senior White House officials have not settled on anyone and may not anytime soon, administration officials said. If Sessions were to be fired without even a temporary replacement lined up, the deputy attorney general who oversees the Russia probe, Rod Rosenstein, would assume authority over the entire Justice Department.

One Republican close to the White House said a number of senior aides, including newly hired communications director Anthony Scaramucci, have urged Trump to sit down with Sessions and work through their differences. So far, there has been little enthusiasm for the suggestion, the Republican said.

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One informal adviser to the Trump White House said there is another reason Trump has yet to fire Sessions.

‘‘The president doesn’t want to be seen as firing another law enforcement official.’’

After Trump fired Comey, one unintended consequence was the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel overseeing the Russia probe.

Earlier Tuesday, Trump had tweeted that Sessions was ‘‘very weak’’ on investigating Hillary Clinton’s ‘‘crimes’’ and had not aggressively hunted those who have leaked intelligence secrets.

The president’s insistence that Clinton be investigated runs contrary to his own past statements and the decision by the Justice Department and the FBI last year to close the investigation into her use of a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state. Sessions has recused himself from Clinton-related matters, citing his involvement with the presidential campaign as one of Trump’s major advisers.

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The public humiliation of Sessions at the hands of the president he helped get elected was galling to many conservatives, who see Sessions as the Cabinet official who has most assiduously pursued Trump’s policy goals, from cracking down on illegal immigration to targeting street gangs.

Officials said Sessions is due to announce in coming days a number of criminal leak investigations based on news accounts of sensitive intelligence information. And within hours of Trump’s public broadside, the Justice Department announced it would change a police funding program to add new requirements that cities help federal agents find undocumented immigrants to receive grants.

On Tuesday, Republicans publicly rallied to Sessions’ defense.

“Jeff Sessions is among the most honorable men in government today,” said Senator Orrin Harch of Utah. “I have full confidence in Jeff’s ability to perform the duties of his office and, above all, uphold the rule of law.’’

Trump’s tweets drew a rebuke from Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who called Sessions “one of the most decent people I’ve ever met in my political life.”

And Breitbart, the conservative website, posted an article saying the president’s public attack on Sessions ‘‘only serves to highlight Trump’s own hypocrisy,’’ warning that the president’s stance could ‘‘fuel concerns from his base [which sees] Sessions as the best hope to fulfill Trump’s immigration policies.’’

Even among Democrats, Trump’s treatment of Sessions raised concerns.

‘‘What’s happening is just terrible,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. “The attorney general did the right thing. The attorney general was nothing but loyal to Donald Trump. He took an oath of office to represent the Constitution, the law and the people.’’

Current and former Justice Department officials said they hope Sessions holds out, refusing to resign as a means of defending the department’s independence.

One former Justice Department official said the president’s anger seems to stem from a misunderstanding about how the department actually works. The White House, he said, should not be interfering with criminal investigations.

‘‘For those of us that want this administration to succeed, this is incredibly self-destructive behavior,’’ the official said.

Justice Department employees said the president’s comments are damaging the reputation and morale of the department.

‘‘It’s just insanity,’’ said one employee who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. Another official said there was still hope in the building that Sessions could survive, and that Trump’s fury might abate. ‘‘This might be the one instance where everyone else just kind of rolls their eyes and moves on,’’ the official said.

The surge of support for Sessions is remarkable, considering how isolated he has been within the government. Sessions is viewed warily by many at the FBI for his role in Comey’s firing, and he is increasingly distant from the White House, despite the fact that some of his former Senate staffers serve there.

President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February, after Sessions was sworn in.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images/File
President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February, after Sessions was sworn in.

Jaclyn Reiss, Christina Prignano, and Robert Decola of the Globe staff contributed to this report.