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: 766351

Reported Deaths: 13965
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1052671804
Lake568691028
Allen42858698
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Hamilton37260426
Elkhart29729470
Tippecanoe23441230
Vanderburgh23153404
Porter19568327
Johnson18807391
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Warrick8053157
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Grant7349181
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Boone7173105
Morgan6904142
Marshall6329116
Dubois6270118
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Henry5944111
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Gibson461596
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Jay202832
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Pulaski123648
Newton123036
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Brown105943
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Switzerland8328
Union73510
Ohio58311
Unassigned0428

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1122647

Reported Deaths: 20467
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1302911493
Cuyahoga1171502259
Hamilton823481259
Montgomery534491059
Summit488581014
Lucas43734832
Butler39936614
Stark33800937
Lorain25996509
Warren24896312
Mahoning22685612
Lake21457396
Clermont20368260
Delaware19120138
Licking16842227
Trumbull16786491
Fairfield16762207
Medina15832276
Greene15499254
Clark14339308
Portage13417218
Wood13338201
Allen12043245
Richland11726213
Miami10998228
Wayne9251227
Columbiana9196236
Muskingum9119137
Pickaway8738123
Tuscarawas8714254
Marion8703140
Erie8126166
Ashtabula7272179
Hancock7044134
Ross7012165
Geauga6948153
Scioto6679108
Belmont6210179
Lawrence5917104
Union590449
Jefferson5723162
Huron5630122
Sandusky5482130
Darke5436130
Seneca5376128
Washington5362111
Athens526560
Auglaize507087
Mercer490685
Shelby481297
Knox4609112
Madison447266
Ashland443198
Defiance438499
Fulton435775
Putnam4351104
Crawford4110111
Brown409662
Preble3946107
Logan391679
Clinton389266
Ottawa375581
Highland365068
Williams356478
Champaign348360
Guernsey330254
Jackson321254
Perry298350
Morrow294643
Fayette288250
Hardin279165
Henry276967
Coshocton272561
Holmes2725102
Van Wert251665
Adams249258
Gallia249250
Pike244637
Wyandot235257
Hocking222663
Carroll201249
Paulding179442
Meigs151040
Noble137739
Monroe137545
Harrison115238
Morgan111524
Vinton87217
Unassigned03
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It's a steamy Wednesday with scattered showers and thunderstorms arriving Wednesday night.
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