Attorney General Jeff Sessions is set to unveil within days a number of criminal leak investigations, The Washington Post reports. The probes will be centered around news reports that have contained sensitive material about intelligence, the Post adds.
The news comes as newly appointed White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci declared he was prepared to “fire everybody” to stop information leaks from the press office – and amid President Donald Trump’s public criticism of Sessions.
The public standoff between the White House and the nation’s senior law enforcement official took another strange turn Tuesday as President Donald Trump escalated his verbal attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was urged by fellow conservatives to stand his ground.
Trump was asked at a Rose Garden news conference if he would fire the attorney general, who angered the president by recusing himself from the criminal probe into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. “We’ll see what happens,” Trump answered shortly.
“I’m disappointed in the attorney general. If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office, and I would have picked somebody else. It’s a bad thing not just for the president, but also for the presidency. I think it’s unfair to the presidency.” Trump said.
He noted that he wanted Sessions “to be much tougher on leaks in the intelligence agencies that are leaking like they never have before…You can’t let that happen”.
It is unheard of for a Cabinet-level official to be subjected to such visceral and public criticism, which has now gone on for a week. But Sessions showed no sign of buckling Tuesday, and in fact his position was bolstered by support from prominent conservatives taking his side in the fight with Trump.
In a recent conversation, Sessions’s chief of staff, Jody Hunt, told White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus that the attorney general had no intention of stepping down. Hunt, according to people familiar with the conversation, made it clear to Priebus that Sessions “plans to move forward with his agenda in the department and he has no plans for resigning” according to one person familiar with the exchange. Priebus, for his part, did not say Trump planned to fire Sessions if he did not leave, these people said.
Trump’s reluctance to act on his anger and fire Sessions may be based in part on the lack of an immediate plan for a successor at the Justice Department. While Trump has discussed potential candidates to replace Sessions, senior White House officials have not settled on anyone, and may not anytime soon, administration officials said. If Sessions were to be fired without even a temporary replacement lined up, the deputy attorney general who oversees the Russia probe, Rod J. Rosenstein, would assume authority over the entire Justice Department.
One Republican close to the White House said a number of senior aides, including newly hired communications director Anthony Scaramucci, have urged Trump to sit down with Sessions and work through their differences. So far, there has been little enthusiasm for that suggestion, the Republican said.
Earlier Tuesday, Trump had tweeted that Sessions was “very weak” on investigating Hillary Clinton’s “crimes’’ and had not aggressively hunted those who have leaked intelligence secrets since he has been in office.
The president’s insistence that Clinton be investigated runs contrary to his own past statements, and the decision by the Justice Department and the FBI last year to close the investigation into her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. Sessions has recused himself from Clinton-related matters, citing his involvement with the presidential campaign as one of Trump’s major advisers.
The public humiliation of Sessions at the hands of the president he helped get elected was galling to many conservatives, who see Sessions as the Cabinet official who has most assiduously pursued Trump’s policy goals, from cracking down on illegal immigration to targeting street gangs.
Officials said Sessions is due to announce in coming days a number of criminal leak investigations based on news accounts of sensitive intelligence information. And within hours of Trump’s public broadside, the Justice Department announced it would change a police funding program to add new requirements that cities help federal agents find undocumented immigrants to receive grants.
On Tuesday, Republicans publicly rallied to Sessions’s defense. Senator Orrin G. Hatch said Sessions “is among the most honorable men in government today…I have full confidence in Jeff’s ability to perform the duties of his office and, above all, uphold the rule of law”.
And Breitbart, the conservative website, posted an article saying the president’s public attack on Sessions “only serves to highlight Trump’s own hypocrisy” and it warned that the president’s stance could “fuel concerns from his base [which sees] Sessions as the best hope to fulfill Trump’s immigration policies”.
Even among Democrats, Trump’s treatment of Sessions raised concerns. Senator Dianne Feinstein the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “What’s happening is just terrible. The attorney general did the right thing. The attorney general was nothing but loyal to Donald Trump. He took an oath of office to represent the Constitution, the law and the people.’’
Current and former Justice Department officials said they hope Sessions holds out, refusing to resign as a means of defending the department’s independence. One former Justice Department official said the president’s anger seems to stem from a misunderstanding about how the department actually works. The White House, he said, should not be interfering with criminal investigations.