On “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump told winning contestants, “You’re hired.” But it was congressional Republican lawmakers who overruled the new president and told Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “You’re relieved.”
As pressure mounted on Sessions over his campaign-season meetings with Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, the president expressed his “total” confidence in the former Alabama senator. Republican leaders provided Sessions cover. But Trump’s view was not enough to keep Sessions involved in any Justice Department investigation involving Trump’s campaign and its contacts with Russian officials.
What made Sessions’ recusal remarkable was that Trump, whom a top aide once said “will not be questioned,” was overruled by mostly rank-and-file Republicans.
The White House was set to weather the storm created when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that it would be “easier” if Sessions recused himself. But an hour later, in what became a pattern among GOP leaders, he told “Fox & Friends” he was “not calling on him to recuse himself.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan gave Sessions cover when he told reporters that if the attorney general was not the subject of an ongoing inquiry, “I don’t see any purpose or reason to doing this.”
But other members stirred. At 8:14 a.m. on Thursday, Utah GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, tweeted that Sessions “should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.”
About an hour later, after being pressed to respond to McCarthy and Chaffetz, the White House blamed Democrats who were calling for Sessions to quit altogether. A White House official told Roll Call that the calls for Sessions to step down were “the latest attack against the Trump administration by partisan Democrats.”
“Sessions met with the ambassador in an official capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is entirely consistent with his testimony,” the official said.
The White House appeared dug in on its stance that there were no nefarious campaign-season contacts with Russian officials, including by Sessions, so there was no need for him to hand off relevant investigations.
By early afternoon, the president himself fortified the pro-Sessions bunker. Asked by reporters aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier in southeastern Virginia if Sessions should recuse himself, Trump replied, “I don’t think so.” He gave his full backing to the attorney general, adding that he thought Sessions “probably did” answer truthfully to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s questions during his confirmation process about his contacts with Russian officials.
Back in Washington, however, the water was rising for Sessions amid a steady stream of recusal calls from the chairman level to the rank and file.
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said in a statement that Sessions “is a former colleague and a friend, but I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ Russia probe.”
He wasn’t out on a limb.
Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters that if the Justice Department was looking into Trump campaign contacts with Russia — which it has not confirmed — his former Senate colleague should not be involved.
“You’ve got an attorney general who is my dear friend, who was closely involved with the presidential campaign,” the South Carolina Republican said. “If there’s credibility to the allegations of inappropriate contacts between a foreign government and the campaign, in my view, for the good of the integrity of the system, somebody should pursue that. Not Jeff Sessions.”
“You don’t want somebody involved in the campaign deciding whether or not there’s a crime in the campaign,” added Graham, a former Air Force lawyer.
Florida Rep. Brian Mast ramped up the pressure when he became one of the few GOP members to use the other “r-word.”
“Jeff Sessions needs to immediately clarify his Senate testimony and recuse himself from any investigation into Russian ties,” Mast said. “If he cannot commit to ensuring this process is completed with full transparency and integrity, he should resign.”
Then there was the nudge from Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley.
“When we spoke earlier this afternoon, between votes on the Senate floor, I suggested, as I did with Attorney General [Loretta] Lynch after she met with President [Bill] Clinton on her airplane, that his recusal may be the best course of action,” the Iowa Republican said in a Thursday afternoon statement. “He indicated that he had been consulting with the professionals at the department, and that he agreed.”
If Trump came around to such a view, he has shown no signs of it publicly. There was no official White House statement bearing the president’s name or that of his top spokesman, Sean Spicer, with even grudging applause for Sessions’ move.
The pattern for previous administrations typically took this form: Send out a bland statement reiterating that while the president believes so-and-so official did nothing illegal, the president salutes him or her for putting the country first.
Trump declared the whole thing a “witch hunt.”
“Jeff Sessions is an honest man. He did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional,” Trump said in a Facebook post that he later parceled out on Twitter. “This whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win.”
“The Democrats are overplaying their hand. They lost the election and now, they have lost their grip on reality,” he said. “The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total witch hunt.”
The takeaway, though? Republican members, for the first time, exerted leverage over and taught the president a lesson about how the “swamp” he vowed to drain can be a fast-moving and politically cutthroat place.
Lindsey McPherson, Bridget Bowman and Simone Pathé contributed to this report.