WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump kept up his public pelting of Jeff Sessions on Wednesday even as the White House suggested that the attorney general should just press ahead with doing his job.
Trump’s days-long barrage of criticism of Sessions resumed with a morning tweet wondering why Sessions didn’t “replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe,” whom the president characterized as a friend of fired former FBI Director James Comey and an ally of Hillary Clinton. That came just a day after Trump repeatedly expressed regret over choosing Sessions for the Cabinet position and refused to say whether he’d fire the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
“We will see what happens,” Trump said at a Tuesday news conference in the Rose Garden. “Time will tell. Time will tell.”
But White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday afternoon of Sessions that the president “wants him to lead the department.”
“Look, you can be disappointed in someone and still want them to continue in their jobs,” she said during the daily briefing.
The attorney general visited the White House on Wednesday morning for a routine meeting that did not include the president, according to Sanders.
And the president’s intensifying criticism has fueled speculation that the attorney general may step down even if the president stops short of firing him. But several people close to the former Alabama senator have said that Sessions does not plan to quit.
McCabe has served as acting FBI director since Trump fired Comey in May. The president has been angry at McCabe for months, particularly after he highlighted the FBI’s work in the ongoing Russia probe and praised Comey during an appearance before Congress.
But Trump could have fired McCabe himself at any time from the acting director position. Trump’s pick to be the new FBI director, Christopher Wray, had his nomination voted out of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee last week.
Sessions and Trump have not spoken in recent days. In private, Trump has told confidants that Sessions was disloyal in recusing himself from the federal investigation of Russia’s meddling in the presidential election and the possibility of collaboration with the Trump campaign. Sessions himself had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the election as a representative of the Trump campaign and thus stepped aside from the probe.
Trump’s harsh words drew a strong response from a number of Sessions’ former Senate colleagues, suggesting that all Republicans may not fall in line this time behind the president.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins agreed with a reporter’s question suggesting that if Trump were to fire Sessions, the president’s replacement pick might have a hard time being confirmed.
“I think the answer to that question is likely yes but clearly it would depend on the person whom the president appointed,” Collins said. “But I hope we do not come to that.”
Many influential conservatives — including evangelicals and members of the media, like Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart News — also rallied around Sessions, pointing to a possible erosion of Trump’s right-wing base if he were to force the former Alabama senator out.
Trump has said repeatedly that he would have “picked someone else” for the job if he’d known Sessions would recuse himself. He called Sessions’ decision a “bad thing for the presidency,” changing a word from his previous comments that it had been bad for “the president.” He also said the attorney general ought to get cracking on stopping leaks from federal intelligence agencies.
Sessions is expected to announce next week stepped up efforts to investigate leaks of sensitive information to the press, an official familiar with the matter said. The official said the announcement has been planned for some time, before Trump’s push for the crackdown. The official was not authorized to discuss the effort publicly ahead of the formal announcement and did so on condition of anonymity.
The president on Tuesday had tweeted: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!”
Some White House aides and Trump confidants have begun discussing how to move on beyond Sessions, while others have cautioned the president against firing a figure popular among conservatives — especially during the heat of the Russia probe.
Sessions’ exit could also raise the specter of Trump asking Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — or whomever he appoints to fill the position — to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and potential collusion with Trump’s campaign. That would seem to fulfill the vision of the Justice Department that Trump’s critics believe he articulated during the campaign: a place that, at his direction, will punish his political enemies.
But Trump often talks about making staff changes without following through, so those who have spoken with the president cautioned that a change may not be imminent or happen at all.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Erica Werner contributed reporting.