Jeff Sessions Vows To Stay Attorney General Despite Trump's Criticism

Jul 20, 2017
Originally published on July 20, 2017 4:56 pm
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Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he plans to stay on the job. That wouldn't be news except that yesterday, in an interview with The New York Times, President Trump openly criticized Sessions. Trump said that if he knew then what he knows now, he wouldn't have nominated him to be attorney general. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The core of President Trump's beef with his attorney general is an announcement Sessions made on March 2 of this year.

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JEFF SESSIONS: Therefore I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.

KEITH: The FBI had been investigating Russian meddling in the election and possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia since July of 2016, though at the time Sessions recused himself, that wasn't public knowledge. In the New York Times interview, Trump objects to Sessions' decision.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he would - if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.

MAGGIE HABERMAN: And he gave you no heads up at all in any sense.

TRUMP: Zero.

KEITH: After Sessions' recusal, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein became the Justice Department official handling the Russia investigation. In May shortly after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Rosenstein appointed a special counsel, Robert Mueller, to handle the investigation. Trump has repeatedly called the investigation a witch hunt and sees Sessions' recusal as the original sin that led to the appointment of the special counsel.

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TRUMP: It's extremely unfair, and that's a mild word to the president.

KEITH: In early 2016, Sessions was the first Republican senator to endorse Trump.

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SESSIONS: I told Donald Trump, this isn't a campaign. This is a movement. Look at what's happening.

KEITH: Sessions was a close and loyal adviser throughout the campaign, rewarded with one of the most powerful positions in the federal government. At a press conference today to announce the takedown of a major cyber criminal operation, Sessions was asked how he could continue doing his job after the president's very public criticism. One reporter asked Sessions if he was planning to resign.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SESSIONS: I have the honor of serving as attorney general. It's something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself. We love this job. We love this department, and I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate.

KEITH: Also today, White House Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders was asked, given everything the president said, if Trump has confidence in his attorney general.

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SARAH SANDERS: Clearly he has confidence in him, or he would not be the attorney general.

KEITH: As for Sessions decision back in March, there wasn't much of a choice at all. Justice Department regulations dictate that someone who advised a presidential campaign can't be involved with an investigation into that campaign. Here's how Sessions described it in a Senate hearing last month.

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SESSIONS: And it says if you have a close identification with an elected official or candidate arising from service as a principal adviser, you should not participate in an investigation of that campaign.

KEITH: Sessions' recusal came in the midst of a firestorm about his failure to disclose meetings he'd had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., but Sessions insisted he began the process of recusing himself weeks earlier. None of these explanations have satisfied President Trump, someone who comes from a real estate and branding business where his word was final. Unlike a private business, the federal government has a labyrinth of rules and regulations that govern how employees and appointees operate. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.