The long-time feud between President Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions took a startlingly public turn on Thursday, with both men using the media to condemn one another.
Trump’s displeasure with the head of the Justice Department began to take its shape not long after the president’s inauguration. With the Russia investigation still fresh in the news cycle, Sessions recused himself from the FBI’s inquiry.
That decision—intended, ostensibly, to preserve the integrity of the Attorney General’s office—smacked of betrayal to President Trump, who’s taken to questioning Sessions’ appointment ever since. Speaking to Fox News in an interview aired Thursday, the commander-in-chief puzzled over Sessions’ ability to run his own agency.
“He took the job, and then he said, ‘I’m going to recuse myself.’ I said, ‘What kind of man is this?’ And by the way, he was on the campaign,” President Trump said. “You know, the only reason I gave him the job, because I felt loyalty. He was an original supporter.”
Trump’s telling remark—that he imparted an important, high-profile position as a way to reward an ‘original supporter’—echoes the sentiments of many past appointments. For the president, matters of personal loyalty have always been of the utmost important.
And so far, Sessions’ refusal to shut down Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s collusion investigation seems the ultimate betrayal.
Trump made that sentiment public Thursday, telling Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt, “I put in an attorney general that never took control of the Justice Department.
“Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department and it’s sort of an incredible thing.”
The barrage of insults and insinuations, directed both against Sessions’ post and his masculinity, prompted the attorney general to issue a harsh statement only hours afterward.
Not only did Sessions imply that Trump’s criticisms stemmed from a place of political insecurity, he hearkened back to the dedicated, White House-friendly agenda pursued by the Justice Department since last January. Under the Trump administration, Sessions unleashed a crackdown on illegal immigration, culminating in an unprecedented family separation crisis.
Regardless of Sessions’ personal ethics, the attorney general’s curt reply marked an escalation in the two men’s relationship.
“While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations,” Sessions said, in an apparent reference to the ongoing collusion investigation. “I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action. However, no nation has a more talented, more dedicated group of law enforcement investigators and prosecutors than the United States.”
“Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.” Jeff, this is GREAT, what everyone wants, so look into all of the corruption on the “other side” including deleted Emails, Comey lies & leaks, Mueller conflicts, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 24, 2018
Responding to Sessions, Trump encouraged the attorney general to begin investigating the president’s own political enemies.
The Washington Post suggests that Trump’s tantrum over the attorney general’s lack of loyalty could come at a cost. While the president retains the right to dismiss Sessions and appoint a new Justice chief whenever he sees fit, the commander-in-chief’s motives have never been clearer: Trump expects the agency to brush aside the FBI and shut down Mueller.
If Trump expects loyalty from any possible successor, he may not be able to confirm a new attorney general until Mueller finishes his investigation.
Whether Sessions is in control of the Justice Department or not, it seems the president, whose administration has seen critical attrition rates for high-level staff, may not have the impunity to act without consequence.