Nation/World

Allies warn Trump of conservative revolt unless he backs off attorney general

WASHINGTON — For a week, some of President Donald Trump's top aides have tried to talk him down from his public campaign against Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It was exposing tensions within the administration, stirring consternation with the conservative base and setting off a revolt among Senate Republicans incensed over the treatment of a former colleague.

Among those urging Trump to spare Sessions have been Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff; Stephen K. Bannon, the president's chief strategist; and Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, according to officials who asked not to be named describing internal deliberations.

For the White House, the attacks on the attorney general have touched off a serious problem on Capitol Hill when it did not need any other headaches. Senate Republicans who almost never link arms in unison against a president from their party formed a cordon around Sessions, making it clear they neither concurred with nor would tolerate Trump's repeated threats to the attorney general's tenure. Senate leaders made clear they would block Trump from replacing Sessions if he tried to do so during the coming recess.

"I would hope the public discussion of that would end immediately," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who said he delivered the message directly to the White House. Those sentiments were echoed publicly by at least a dozen Republican senators, including their top two leaders, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and John Cornyn of Texas. Sessions' removal, Cornyn said, would be "incredibly disruptive."

By Wednesday afternoon, just hours after the president's latest broadside against the attorney general, several officials said they thought the storm had passed: Trump would let Sessions stay in office, at least for now. If he were going to fire the attorney general, they said, he would have already done so. But his anger was deep, they added, and nothing was certain when it came to the volatile president. Sharing the president's frustration have been people in his family, some of whom have come under scrutiny in the Russia investigation.

The persistent presidential barrage against Sessions "says more about President Trump than it does Attorney General Sessions, and to me, it's a sign of great weakness on the part of President Trump," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "I hope Jeff Sessions doesn't give in to this humiliation campaign."

The president's pique at Sessions stems from the attorney general's decision to step aside from overseeing the investigation into Russia's interference in last year's election and any possible ties to Trump's campaign team because he had been a top campaign surrogate and met with the Russian ambassador himself. After Sessions's recusal, his deputy appointed a special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to lead the investigation. A new attorney general could in theory fire Mueller.

Trump has not spoken with Sessions since the president's public complaints began a week ago. The attorney general was in the White House on Wednesday for a meeting of Cabinet-level officials but did not see the president, officials said. Even as he was visiting, Trump launched a new fusillade against him.

"Why didn't A.G. Sessions replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation but got big dollars ($700,000) for his wife's political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives," Trump wrote on Twitter. "Drain the Swamp!"

Andrew McCabe, a career law enforcement official, took over the FBI after Trump fired James Comey, the bureau director, in May. McCabe's wife, Jill, received contributions in 2015 for a state Senate run in Virginia from the state Democratic Party and a political action committee affiliated with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is a close friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton. Jill McCabe lost the race.

By the afternoon, however, the White House seemed to have subtly moderated the tone, shifting to a more moving-forward message.

"He's obviously disappointed but also wants the attorney general to continue to focus on the things that the attorney general does," Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said, referring to the president. "He wants him to lead the Department of Justice. He wants to do that strongly. He wants him to focus on things like immigration, leaks and a number of other issues, and I think that's what his focus is at this point."

Asked why the president would criticize Sessions without firing him or asking for his resignation, Sanders said, "Look, you can be disappointed in someone but still want them to continue to do their job."

Sessions, who has remained silent since the weekend, seemed to get the message. Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, said the attorney general was close to announcing an investigation into the intelligence leaks that have so angered Trump.

"I think he's got a plan that he's put together, and at some point, I don't know if it'd be today, tomorrow or next week, he'll announce that plan," Scaramucci said on Fox News.

Trump began his sustained attack on Sessions in an interview with The New York Times a week ago. While it was known that he was angry about the recusal, Sessions made the decision months ago, and it remained unclear why it suddenly came up again. Some advisers said they believed that Trump's anger grew as the Russia investigation touched more on his family, and he blamed Sessions for not protecting him.

The Times reported that Donald Trump Jr. met with Russians during the campaign as part of what he was told was an effort by the Russian government to help his father's candidacy. Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and now a senior White House adviser, spent two days this week being interviewed in private about his contacts with Russians by the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Although Trump often publicly criticizes people in his own circle, Sessions is someone with a powerful base of support in the Senate. This is partly because Sessions, who was a senator from Alabama, is a well-liked former colleague with whom many senators remain close. He endured a brutal confirmation in which many of them were forced to vigorously defend him at the behest of Trump.

But Republicans also fear that the firing of an attorney general in the middle of the Russia investigations would send the country into a political and constitutional tailspin, making it extremely difficult to confirm anyone Trump nominated to replace him. And they argued that Trump was jeopardizing his own agenda.

"If you look at so much of what the president of the United States wants to accomplish on his agenda, Sessions is critical to that," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would consider any replacement, said in a television interview this week. "And Sessions should remain in office." In a Twitter message on Wednesday night, Grassley warned that his committee schedule was full with other nominations: "AG no way."

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., agreed, even as he noted that he supports Trump. "The only area where I disagree with him is he's got this fight going with Jeff Sessions," he said, "but let me just say this: There is no one I hold in higher regard. He's about the most knowledgeable person, compassionate person and honorable person we can have in that job."

And almost every Republican who has ventured an opinion also agrees that Sessions was correct in recusing himself. "I think the attorney general is doing a fine job," McConnell, whose wife, Elaine Chao, the transportation secretary, serves in the Cabinet with Sessions, said Tuesday. "And I think he made the right decision to recuse himself from the Russia matter."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.

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