The Slatest

Did Donald Trump Just Get the Green Light to Fire Jeff Sessions?

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein attend the Religious Liberty Summit at the Department of Justice July 30, 2018 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein attend the Religious Liberty Summit at the Department of Justice July 30, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Thursday, Fox News ran an interview with President Donald Trump in which he once again trashed his attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

“I put in an attorney general that never took control of the Justice Department,” the president said. “Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department and it’s a sort of an incredible thing.”

Sessions has been under fire from the president ever since his recusal in the Russia investigation helped result in the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Given Trump’s past criticism, it’s unsurprising then that the president is lashing out at Sessions during a week when two of Trump’s former top lieutenants became convicted felons and his own potential criminal exposure rose to a level not previously seen.

What has been surprising is the response to this news by certain Republican members of the Senate. As Bloomberg News reported on Thursday:

Two key Republican senators signaled to President Donald Trump that he could replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the midterm elections in November, a move that would open the way for firing Robert Mueller or constraining his probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley had previously said that his committee would not have the bandwidth to take up a Sessions replacement under the current circumstances. On Thursday, Grassley changed course. “I do have time for hearings on nominees that the president might send up here that I didn’t have last year,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, signaled a willingness to take up a nomination for Sessions’ replacement after a previously hardline stance against such a possibility. “I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice,” Graham told reporters on Thursday. “Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn’t have the confidence of the president.” It was reported earlier this month by Politico that Graham might be in line to take over leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee next year.

Graham had previously said that “there will be holy hell to pay” if Trump were to fire Sessions.

The South Carolina senator did say that any firing would have to be after Judge Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court and after the midterm elections, because otherwise it would “create havoc.”

The havoc in question would be a potential public backlash to a transparent effort to sabotage investigations of the president and his associates that could plunge our country into a constitutional crisis.

As national security legal expert Steve Vladeck wrote in Slate and Just Security last year, a Sessions firing would open the door for Trump to appoint a temporary replacement who could potentially do his bidding in the Mueller probe that has caused the president such consternation.

It’s unclear whether Republicans would support such a blatant assault on the rule of law. Two other Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee signaled support for Sessions on Thursday.

“I think it would be bad for the country, it would be bad for the president, it would be bad for the Department of Justice for him to be forced out under these circumstances,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said on Thursday. “So I hope he stays the course and I hope cooler heads prevail.”

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a frequent Trump critic and another member of the judiciary committee, took to the Senate floor to say that he would not vote for a Sessions replacement under the current circumstances. He also described the conversation around Sessions as “goofy talk about firing the attorney general.”

“There are people in this body now talking like the attorney general will be fired, should be fired,” Sasse said. “I’m not sure how to interpret the comments of the last couple of hours, but I guess I would just like to say, as a member of the judiciary committee and as a member of this body, I find it really difficult to envision any circumstance where I would vote to confirm a successor to Jeff Sessions if he is fired because he’s executing his job, rather than choosing to act as a partisan hack.”

For his part, Sessions issued a rare public rebuke to the president and offered support for Justice Department officials who he called the most “talented [and] dedicated group of law enforcement investigators and prosecutors” in the world.

“I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in,” Sessions said. “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”