President Donald Trump impressed senators Wednesday with a cogent, engaged pitch on health care that didn’t veer wildly from the script. Within an hour, without seeking advice from his lawyers or his senior aides, Trump was in the Oval Office telling reporters from The New York Times that he regretted hiring Jeff Sessions as his attorney general and discussing a sensitive investigation his lawyers have told him to keep quiet about – a performance that once again left his most senior aides startled and scrambling to respond, Politico reads.
Because only one staffer, Hope Hicks, was in Trump’s interview, others were left to hurriedly transcribe a tape recording of the meeting after the fact – just so they could know what the president had said. Others rushed to talk to Hicks in the West Wing.
“Only Hope really knew,” said one senior administration official. “Everyone else was in the dark.”
It was another sharp reminder that no matter what policy initiatives the president says he wants to focus on – or how well he sticks to his talking points – that trouble is always right around the corner thanks to the Russia probe. Aides have tried to keep him away from the news media, and particularly from engaging in long on-the-record exchanges where he meanders, but Trump enjoys talking to reporters and wants to be quoted.
The president has grown obsessed with the Russia investigation, now overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller, and has been furious at Sessions since his decision in March to recuse himself.
In the Times interview, Trump also questioned the political leanings and ethics of Sessions’ deputy Rod Rosenstein, repeated his claims of conflicts on the part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and notably shifted his account of his dealings with FBI Director James Comey before he was abruptly fired in May.
Most of the sentiments Trump expressed in the interview did not come as a surprise to his top aides, but they recognized that the president putting those views on the record in such pointed terms was certain to trigger a media firestorm and increase tensions with the Justice Department.
Aides say Trump has no immediate plans to fire Mueller but often fumes about him, his team and where his investigation could lead. Trump told the Times that he believed it would be “a violation” for Mueller to look at his family’s financial dealings beyond anything involving Russia, for example. A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.
Rosenstein isn’t someone the president often mentions, one official said, but “it’s not like he is close with him.”
Trump has blamed Sessions for much of the mess he now finds himself in and sees the recusal as a pivotal moment in his presidency, advisers and aides say. And he thinks Sessions hasn’t always presented himself well in public. The top campaign adviser is no longer in the inner circle.
“His feelings are not new here. He just has never said it like this,” said the senior administration official said.
The official acknowledged that the statements could fuel questions about whether Sessions, one of Trump’s earliest backers in the campaign, will resign. While there seemed to be no immediate plans in place for that Wednesday night, administration officials said it was different for Trump to criticize Sessions publicly.
“If you’re Jeff you have to say, why am I sticking around and getting kicked like this?” the official said. “He’ll have to have a conversation with the president about it, though I’m not sure when.”