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'I don't have an attorney general': Trump escalates attacks on Sessions

The Washington Post

September 19. 2018 8:51PM
United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at Valor Survive and Thrive Conference in Waukegan, Ill., on Wednesday. (REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump escalated his attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday, offering a scathing assessment of his performance on the job and in his confirmation hearing.

“I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad,” Trump said in an interview with Hill. TV, in which he also said the former senator from Alabama came off as “mixed up and confused” when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2017.

Trump also said in the interview that he regrets not firing James B. Comey as FBI director sooner, asserting that he should have done so while still a candidate for President — an option that was not actually available to him.

“If I did one mistake with Comey, I should have fired him before I got here,” Trump said. “I should have fired him right after the convention, say I don’t want that guy. Or at least fired him the first day on the job. ... I would have been better off firing him or putting out a statement that I don’t want him there when I get there.”

Trump fired Comey in May 2017, citing concerns about the way he handled the investigation in Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server while secretary of state. He later suggested that the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was a factor.

Trump’s firing of Comey has been under scrutiny by special counsel Robert Mueller as his team probes whether Trump obstructed the Russia investigation.

The FBI director enjoys a unique status in the Justice Department. The person picked for the job is appointed to a 10-year term, which is designed to insulate whoever is in the position from politics. That is different even than the attorney general, the country’s top law enforcement official.

While the President can remove the FBI director, doing so is extremely rare and comes with significant political cost. Before Comey, only one FBI director had been removed by the President since 1972 — William Sessions, who was fired by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s over allegations of ethics violations.

Trump has long been publicly critical of Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and said that he has regretted nominating him to lead the Justice Department.

But in the Hill.TV interview, Trump offered broader criticism, including on Sessions’s handling of immigration issues, which has been cheered by Trump allies.

“I’m not happy at the border, I’m not happy with numerous things, not just this,” Trump said, referring to the Russian investigation.

Sessions has implemented some of the most aggressive and controversial steps to try to crack down on illegal immigration — emphasizing “zero tolerance” for those who come to the country illegally, defending the policy of separating families, and issuing a ruling that limits those who qualify for asylum, among other things.

Trump doubled down on his criticism of Sessions as he left the White House on Wednesday morning for North Carolina to survey hurricane damage.

“I’m disappointed in the attorney general for many reasons, and you understand that,” he told reporters.

After taking another public tongue-lashing from the President, Sessions gave a speech Wednesday to law enforcement officials in Waukegan, Ill., in which he effusively praised Trump.

“Under his strong leadership, we are respecting police again and enforcing our laws,” Sessions said, according to a written version of the speech. “Based on my experience meeting with officers like you across the country, I believe that morale has already improved under President Trump. I can feel the difference.”

In the interview, Trump suggested he appointed Sessions out of blind loyalty.

“I’m so sad over Jeff Sessions because he came to me,” Trump said. “He was the first senator that endorsed me. And he wanted to be attorney general, and I didn’t see it.”

Trump said Sessions did “very poorly” during the confirmation process.

“I mean, he was mixed up and confused, and people that worked with him for, you know, a long time in the Senate were not nice to him, but he was giving very confusing answers,” Trump said. “Answers that should have been easily answered. And that was a rough time for him.”

Citing Justice Department regulations, Sessions announced his recusal from the Russia investigation in March because of his prominent role in the Trump campaign. Part of the investigation now led by special counsel Mueller is focusing on whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia.

In the interview, Trump questioned Sessions’s self-recusal, asserting that the FBI “reported shortly thereafter any reason for him to recuse himself.”

It was not immediately clear what he meant.

Career Justice Department ethics officials had told Sessions he had to step aside from any campaign-related investigations.


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