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Jeff Sessions is the most conservative member of the Trump administration. Trump doesn’t care.

Trump doesn’t want a champion of a particular brand of conservatism. He wants protection for himself.  

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks on the Trump administration’s anti-corruption efforts on December 4, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In an interview with the Hill, President Donald Trump blasted Attorney General Jeff Sessions in perhaps the strongest terms he’s used yet, and not just for recusing himself from the investigation into the Trump presidential campaign’s ties with Russia.

During a freewheeling interview with the Hill’s John Solomon and Buck Sexton on Tuesday, Trump said that Sessions performed “very poorly” during his confirmation process and only squeaked by with one vote (which is untrue; he was confirmed by a 52-47 vote).

Trump went further, saying, “I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad,” adding that “my worst enemies, I mean, people that, you know, are on the other side of me, in a lot of ways including politically, have said that was a very unfair thing he did” in recusing himself. He concluded, “I’m very disappointed in Jeff. Very disappointed.”

This is a very strange position for Sessions, a man whose conservative bona fides — and right-leaning priorities — both in the Senate and as attorney general are unquestionable. He is perhaps the most visibly old-school conservative member of the Trump administration, harking back to what Jay Caruso, an editorial writer at the Dallas Morning News, told me was a “older, 1990s ‘tough on crime’ mentality.”

Others would call Sessions’s mentality racist and xenophobic. Sessions virulently opposed immigration reform throughout his Senate tenure, even saying in a floor speech in May 2006, “Fundamentally, almost no one coming from the Dominican Republic to the United States is coming because they have a skill that would benefit us and that would indicate their likely success in our society.” A state representative from Alabama described him as an “Eagle Scout” in 2013, adding, “He believes in the Constitution, and he believes in the rule of law.”

That’s exactly the problem. Trump doesn’t want an attorney general who believes in the Constitution, or an attorney general willing to hasten the deportation of victims of domestic violence seeking asylum — or even an attorney general who will fix the “inner cities” he believes are enmeshed in turmoil. (Sessions has repeatedly decried criminal justice reform efforts aimed at ending police misconduct, including praising the practice of civil asset forfeiture.)

Instead, Trump wants a protector — for himself.

“Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department”

Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump, doing so at a rally in February 2016, even putting on a MAGA hat to the cheers of the crowd. Sessions had been widely expected to endorse Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), but his support boosted Trump’s bona fides with Tea Party activists and evangelical voters at a crucial moment in the campaign.

At the rally where Sessions endorsed the real estate mogul, Trump said that Sessions was “respected by everybody here” and that he was “really the expert as far as I’m concerned on borders, on so many things.” But Trump is no longer so complimentary.

Sessions recused himself from “any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns” at a press conference in March 2017 following news of Sessions’s meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — a meeting he did not disclose when asked directly about contact with Russian officials during his confirmation hearings.

He reportedly did not tell Trump of his decision to recuse himself. Ever since, Sessions has been the target of unrelenting criticism from the president — not for the Justice Department’s rollback of criminal justice reform efforts or attempt to crack down on marijuana (a subject on which Trump and Sessions disagree), but for being, in Trump’s view, inadequately protective of him.

Trump has repeatedly accused Sessions of refusing to investigate Hillary Clinton’s actions both during the 2016 campaign and in her position as secretary of state. In an interview with CNN in August, Trump said, “I put in an attorney general who never took control of the Justice Department. Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department. It’s sort of an incredible thing.”

Trump said on Twitter that month that the attorney general was “scared stiff and Missing In Action.” In all, he has attacked Sessions and the Justice Department more than a dozen times on Twitter.

I spoke with Jay Cost, a conservative historian and writer at National Review, who said Sessions had proven himself a valuable ally for Trump: “Jeff Sessions is not just a conservative; he was the first senator to endorse Trump. And as attorney general, he has implemented Trump’s immigration agenda to an impressive extent.” And that’s true: Sessions has taken charge of the immigration issue.

As my colleague Dara Lind has reported extensively, Sessions has taken the extraordinary step of giving himself and his office the power to review hundreds of thousands of immigrants’ court cases, with the intention of speeding up the deportation process, even for people claiming asylum.

But in Trump’s view, he wants an attorney general who behaves less like Jeff Sessions and more like former Attorney General Eric Holder, who many on the right believe protected President Barack Obama from inquiries into the “Fast and Furious” scandal and allegations of misconduct — from the IRS allegedly targeting conservative organizations to Holder himself being held in contempt by Congress — by the Justice Department and the administration more broadly.

In an interview with the New York Times in December, Trump said, “I don’t want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that, I will say this: Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him ... Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest.”

Trump even blasted Sessions’s Justice Department for not stopping the investigation into two GOP lawmakers — both early supporters of the president — seeming to argue that this would harm the Republican Party in advance of the midterms.

But the Justice Department, and Jeff Sessions, falls under the executive branch, meaning that at any time, Trump could just fire Sessions. Or, as Fox News’s Steve Doocy reminded the president during an April episode of Fox & Friends, “It’s your Department of Justice! Mr. President, you’re the Republican in charge — you’ve got a Republican running it!”

Caruso said it’s “hilarious” how Trump behaves as if Sessions and others within the administration are not people Trump himself put in their positions, but rather people over whom he holds no influence. “If you want to fire the guy, fire him already!” Caruso said, though he added that Trump was “doing his best to shame Sessions into quitting.”

So why hasn’t Trump just fired Sessions already?

Trump is widely expected to fire Sessions after the November midterms. In August, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that finding a replacement for Sessions might be necessary as their relationship had grown too toxic.

“This is a dysfunctional relationship,” he said. “We need a better one. Is there somebody who is highly qualified that has the confidence of the president, [and] will also understand their job is to protect [special counsel Robert] Mueller? Yes, I think we can find that person after the election if that is what the president wants.”

But Caruso asked during our conversation, “Who would replace him?” saying, “it’ll be someone impossible to get through the nomination process.” That’s because some of the names floated — like Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who described Sessions on her show as “the most dangerous man in America” — would be virtually dead on arrival in a confirmation hearing.

The Senate Judiciary Committee reportedly told the White House last year that if Sessions were fired, it would not hold confirmation hearings for a new attorney general. Perhaps Trump has waited too long to do the inevitable — the political consequences he’d face are significantly worse now than before.

What consequences? Charges of obstruction, for one. As a former Trump adviser put it to the Atlantic earlier this year, “Firing the [attorney general] could trigger unintended consequences such as charges linked to obstruction of justice. I’m not sure it has merit, but it would be thrown at him.”

By firing Sessions, Trump’s continued hammering on the attorney general for not ending the “witch hunt” Russia investigation would imply that the firing was an effort to halt the investigation in its tracks. And given that as recently as February, Mueller’s team was investigating a time period last summer when Trump was attempting to force Sessions out of his job — including tweeting incessantly about the attorney general’s purported failings — firing Sessions now would make allegations of obstruction easier to support.

Trump wants an attorney general who will do one thing, and one thing only: protect him. As Cost told me, “For Trump to so publicly disdain Sessions illustrates where the president’s true priorities really are.”