Confronted with the rare and awkward choice of siding with either a president of their party or a Cabinet member who’s a former colleague, Senate Republicans are sounding of single mind:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, until five months ago a senior GOP senator from Alabama, has done nothing to merit the upbraiding he’s been taking from President Donald Trump.
Being a former member of one of the most exclusive clubs in American politics, it seems, has privileges — including insulation from a wave of piling on when your job seems in jeopardy.
Conversations on Thursday with nine senators from across the Republican ideological spectrum, representing one-sixth of the party caucus, produced not a single critical word about their former colleague — let alone anyone willing to agree the president is justified in being angry that Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“He’s a totally honorable man, a public servant who is trying to do the right thing,” Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, a former attorney general of the state, said in a typical comment. “I respected the recusal decision when he made it and I still respect it now,” he added.
Asked if the president was being too harsh on Sessions, GOP conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota offered: “Well, what ‘I’ think is that the attorney general is doing a good job.”
The longest-tenured current GOP senator, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, said that while the recusal decision Sessions made in March was a close call, he’s done “a fine job” since and Trump’s unabated fury after so many months was out of all proportion.
“The president could have, and should have, been a bit more judicious, to use a word appropriate in this case,” Hatch said, adding: “Although, of course, that’s not really his way.”
The de facto votes of confidence on the Hill came as Sessions declared he would remain at the helm of the Justice Department “as long as that is appropriate,” despite Trump’s declaration the day before that he would not have nominated Sessions to that post had he known that he would recuse himself.
“Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president,” Trump said during a sprawling interview with The New York Times. “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”
Asked Thursday at a news conference, arranged to announce arrests in an online narcotics sales case, whether he was considering resigning in the face of Trump’s criticisms, Sessions said, “The work we are doing today is the kind of work that we intend to continue,” adding, “I’m totally confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a former attorney general of Texas, described Sessions as “doing just fine” and urged Trump to work to put their relationship back together. “They’re both adults and they can work it out.”
Speaking of loyalty
The president’s unabated fury is all the more perplexing to senators because of Sessions’ distinction as the first senator to endorse him, in February 2016 — a time when many GOP senators and House members were still openly repudiating the candidate who had won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries and become the clear front-runner for the party’s nomination.
From that point through the convention, the fall campaign, the transition and the opening weeks of the administration, Sessions’ status seemed to be steadily elevated from best-friend-in-Congress to one of the few non-family members of Trumps’ innermost circle
But that changed with the recusal, which came after revelations that, in his Senate confirmation hearing, Sessions failed to disclose contacts with the Russian ambassador while advising the Trump campaign. His decision set in motion the series of decisions resulting in former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.
One reason the senators sounded so unified in support of Sessions is that his dismissal or forced resignation would make life for every Republican in Congress much more difficult.
That’s because the nomination and confirmation of a replacement would be, more than anything, a referendum on Mueller’s inquiry, which is already reportedly looking into possibly improper interconnected behavior by members of the president’s family and his 2016 campaign operatives.
Special counsels report to the attorney general, who can veto such an official’s decisions, but are not supposed to provide close supervision. Given the Sessions recusal, Mueller is now reporting to Justice’s No. 2 official, Rod Rosenstein.
Were Sessions to be in need of replacement at the top, however, Mueller would get a new overseer only when Trump nominated someone who had secured Senate confirmation, meaning GOP senators would inevitably be pressed to take a clear position in support or skepticism of Mueller’s work.