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When Jeff Sessions finally called Trump's bluff

The walk down Pennsylvania Avenue was short, but the image was a show of force.The top three officials at the ...

Posted: Mar 2, 2018 10:07 AM
Updated: Mar 2, 2018 10:07 AM

The walk down Pennsylvania Avenue was short, but the image was a show of force.

The top three officials at the Justice Department strolled to dinner together Wednesday evening with smiles less than eight hours after Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched his first public rebuttal to President Donald Trump's latest fusillade on Sessions' "disgraceful" handling of Republican allegations of surveillance abuses at the department and FBI.

The images of Justice Department solidarity ricocheted through Washington, not so much because the three officials chose to dine publicly, but that they did so on a night that proved to be a turning point.

Behind the scenes earlier Wednesday morning, senior Justice officials were keenly aware that any response from Sessions could be viewed as a brushback to the President, as a source close to Sessions explained it, and crafted a statement with the intent of not going an inch further than necessary to defend the department. A second source inside the building said the President's tweet, which landed at 9:34 am, was greeted with some measure of disbelief, but also surprise.

Sessions was prepared to accept the consequences, but the purpose wasn't to pick a fight, the source said -- "he's still loyal to the President."

By Wednesday afternoon, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a friend of Sessions, was on Fox News addressing the attorney general's fractured relationship with Trump and suggesting the tweet missed the mark.

"The President is wrong," said Mukasey. "And he doesn't know his own interests."

Sessions still at it

More than 24 hours later, the attorney general still has his job. In fact, Sessions went back to business as usual Thursday, speaking at a summit at the White House aimed at highlighting the Trump administration's efforts to combat the opioid crisis. The President later briefly acknowledged Sessions, seated in the front row, during his own remarks at the event, noting their conversation about potential lawsuits against drug manufacturers. But the two men were not seen directly interacting at the event.

Trump privately fumed Wednesday after Sessions released his statement vowing to carry out his duties with "integrity" and invoking the Constitution; a source familiar with the President's demeanor described Trump as indignant.

When asked Thursday if Trump wants to fire Sessions, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders demurred: "Not that I know of."

But others who surround the President readily acknowledged how broken their relationship is at this point. Those familiar with Trump's thinking say he has never privately backed off his criticism of his attorney general and were prepared for it to resurface. The President at times had rolled his eyes when Sessions appeared on screen or largely ignored him when the two were in the same meeting. Trump also often grumbles about Sessions to his friends and allies, leaving those he's speaking with wondering why he doesn't just fire him.

Yet any realistic hope of getting another attorney general confirmed by the Senate appears dim, as two key senators on the Judiciary Committee voiced support for Sessions Thursday.

Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who recently feuded with Sessions over criminal justice reform issues, told reporters he has confidence in the attorney general and that he should be allowed to do his job. And Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham said he thinks Sessions is doing "a fine job."

"But, if you want to blow up the Senate, try to find an attorney general to replace Jeff Sessions under these circumstances," Graham quipped.

Brushback pitch

Some Justice Department veterans say Sessions ultimately made the right call.

"It's kinda like baseball. The President threw a pitch at Jeff Sessions' head and he was able to duck before it hit him," said Jamil Jaffer, founder of the National Security Institute and former associate White House counsel under President George W. Bush.

"The attorney general then would have been well within his rights -- at least as far as baseball etiquette goes -- to throw back at the President's head, but instead he decided to throw a hard inside fastball, just enough to brush him back off the plate, but not enough to start a beanball war," Jaffer said.

But Sessions' attempt to strike the right tone in defending his department and his own response to allegations of the FBI's surveillance abuses in the Russia investigation came as no comfort to the President.

His advisers were also surprised by his tweet -- which slammed Sessions for referring a matter to the inspector general's office that has "no prosecutorial power" -- because they had never heard Trump articulate such complaints at that level of detail before. Some even speculated Trump crafted the tweet after being counseled by someone outside of the administration.

While Trump and Sessions' irreconcilable differences have bubbled to the surface periodically since Sessions stepped aside from overseeing the Russia investigation less than a month into his tenure as attorney general last March, a d-tente of sorts had appeared to set over the past several months.

At an event in January, for example, Trump convened a meeting on prison reform at the White House. During the meeting, according to a source, the President turned to Sessions about three times for input and asked him to wrap up the meeting. Once it was over, however, they didn't linger.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 708779

Reported Deaths: 13226
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion966191721
Lake51761946
Allen39224672
Hamilton34549405
St. Joseph34157541
Elkhart27356432
Vanderburgh22081394
Tippecanoe21853212
Porter17935299
Johnson17544374
Hendricks16822310
Clark12697190
Madison12353337
Vigo12219244
Monroe11469166
LaPorte11162204
Delaware10366184
Howard9664211
Kosciusko9134114
Hancock7990139
Bartholomew7893155
Warrick7691155
Floyd7563176
Wayne6906198
Grant6844171
Boone6556100
Morgan6405138
Dubois6085117
Marshall5786108
Dearborn570376
Cass5685102
Henry5579101
Noble542683
Jackson493569
Shelby479495
Lawrence4342118
Gibson429089
Harrison428570
Clinton419753
Montgomery418086
DeKalb411184
Whitley380239
Huntington379880
Miami372865
Knox366689
Steuben365757
Putnam353160
Jasper350946
Wabash347878
Adams338052
Ripley334668
Jefferson313180
White308454
Daviess289499
Wells286481
Decatur279092
Fayette277262
Greene270785
Posey268833
Scott261153
LaGrange253670
Clay253544
Randolph235680
Washington231031
Spencer228031
Jennings225047
Fountain208845
Sullivan207942
Starke204752
Owen192356
Fulton192039
Jay186429
Carroll185920
Perry180736
Orange177853
Rush170724
Vermillion166043
Franklin165635
Tipton161043
Parke144616
Blackford133831
Pike130334
Pulaski113845
Newton104234
Brown100140
Crawford97614
Benton97113
Martin82915
Warren79715
Switzerland7698
Union69910
Ohio55811
Unassigned0408

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1054807

Reported Deaths: 18991
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1225191356
Cuyahoga1074592069
Hamilton783261168
Montgomery50176996
Summit45557909
Lucas40298765
Butler37768570
Stark31513895
Lorain24246473
Warren23910293
Mahoning20946583
Lake20067362
Clermont19459229
Delaware18085130
Licking16149207
Fairfield15757197
Trumbull15627460
Medina14922259
Greene14706236
Clark13660293
Wood12806185
Portage12431196
Allen11352229
Richland11067198
Miami10548214
Muskingum8717127
Wayne8594209
Columbiana8569226
Pickaway8439121
Marion8390135
Tuscarawas8387240
Erie7600154
Hancock6730123
Ross6707146
Geauga6553146
Ashtabula6530165
Scioto6295101
Belmont5634158
Union558447
Lawrence5470102
Jefferson5343147
Huron5314114
Darke5273121
Sandusky5189120
Seneca5139120
Washington5087107
Athens503856
Auglaize476284
Mercer471984
Shelby456590
Knox4397108
Madison423959
Putnam421799
Ashland413488
Fulton410567
Defiance404296
Crawford3883101
Brown386955
Logan374476
Preble371098
Clinton362160
Ottawa357978
Highland347459
Williams328674
Champaign321557
Jackson308551
Guernsey307549
Perry290549
Fayette278048
Morrow275939
Hardin264764
Henry264366
Coshocton259857
Holmes253499
Van Wert239262
Pike233831
Gallia233446
Adams229152
Wyandot227553
Hocking209759
Carroll189447
Paulding168838
Meigs141738
Noble132937
Monroe128941
Morgan106823
Harrison105636
Vinton81614
Unassigned02
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