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President Trump keeps mocking and attacking his own attorney general on Twitter

That’s two straight days of harsh public presidential criticism for Jeff Sessions.

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

It sure looks like President Donald Trump is waging a deliberate public campaign to push his own attorney general to resign.

In a remarkable set of Tuesday morning tweets, Trump trashed Jeff Sessions as taking “a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes” and “intel leakers,” outright complaining that the Justice Department wasn’t doing enough to investigate his political opponents in a manner that shows a shocking lack of respect for the rule of law.

This follows up a just-as-remarkable Monday morning tweet in which Trump called Sessions “beleaguered,” and also asked why he wasn’t looking into “crimes” supposedly committed by Hillary Clinton.

And this isn’t just venting. On Tuesday, the Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz, Matt Zapotosky, and Robert Costa reported that Trump and his advisers “are privately discussing the possibility of replacing” Sessions as “potentially” part of a strategy to shut down Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Indeed, in an interview with the New York Times, Trump complained at length that Sessions shouldn’t have recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation. “It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president,” Trump said.

All this might come as a surprise, considering that Sessions has long seemed to be Trumpism’s biggest champion and truest believer.

But it makes a whole lot more sense when you keep one thing in mind: A new attorney general would not be recused from overseeing the Russia investigation — and therefore might be able to put a lid on it.

This is something Trump has very clearly identified as his biggest problem with Sessions. Indeed, he’s said outright that if he’d known Sessions was going to recuse himself, he wouldn’t have chosen him in the first place. “If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else,” the president told the Times.

So it seems pretty obvious that Trump’s top priority in searching for a replacement for Sessions will be finding someone who won’t recuse himself — and who would therefore be supervising Mueller’s investigation and ultimately deciding whether or not to file charges against anyone.

And that means the Senate needs to demand that any replacement commits, in sworn testimony, to recusal.

A new attorney general wouldn’t necessarily be recused

Trump’s public negging of Sessions seems to make a whole lot more sense under the theory that he’s trying to replace an attorney general who recused himself with one who won’t.

Despite the fact that Sessions was the very first member of the US Senate to endorse Trump’s campaign back in February 2016 and has long seemed to share Trump’s worldview on immigration, the president has reportedly been furious at him since early March, when the new attorney general recused himself from any campaign-related investigations.

The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported that same weekend that Trump left for a weekend trip to Florida “in a fury ... fuming about Sessions’s recusal and telling aides that Sessions shouldn’t have recused himself.” And since then, it’s only gotten worse, especially after Sessions’s recusal opened the door for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Robert Mueller as a special counsel overseeing the probe. Last month we heard that Sessions had at one point offered to resign (Trump refused), and now we have this new public dressing-down.

Trump certainly seems to be acting like Mueller’s investigation may pose an existential threat to his presidency. For months now — both before Mueller’s appointment and afterward — the president has publicly and privately raged about the Russia probe. He admitted he fired FBI Director James Comey in part because of his handling of the Russia investigation. And now, he keeps complaining about Sessions’s recusal, in an apparent effort to force him out.

The generous interpretation here is that Trump legitimately thinks there’s nothing to the Russia scandal and that he, his family members, and his associates are being unfairly targeted in a “witch hunt.” However, it is also extremely possible that Trump suspects people close to him are in serious legal danger and wants his subordinates to try to bottle up the investigation.

Either way, it’s obvious given Trump’s public statements that he sees Sessions’s recusal as one of the biggest problems dogging his presidency. And it certainly seems natural that he would try to solve that problem by replacing Sessions with a new attorney general who won’t recuse himself.

The Senate needs to refuse to confirm any replacement for Sessions who won’t recuse himself

The potential problem for Trump here is that any replacement for Sessions would have to be confirmed by the Senate, so he can’t just install a flunky and be done with it. Any new nominee will surely be asked under oath about whether he or she would recuse during confirmation hearings.

But there’s a serious risk here that a nominee with strong-on-paper credentials would skate through the hearing giving vague or noncommittal answers to this question — and then act to protect Trump once in office.

Indeed, Rod Rosenstein gave vague answers to questions like these during his confirmation hearing as deputy attorney general in March. He repeatedly said that he didn’t have “access” to all the “facts” that would help him decide whether to recuse himself or appoint a special counsel in the matter of the Russia investigation, and vaguely promised that he’d do whatever the facts merited.

Senate Democrats decided to give Rosenstein the benefit of the doubt, and he ended up being confirmed by an enormous 94-6 majority. But just weeks later, Rosenstein was tasked with writing a memo that would be the pretext for the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey — and did it.

After a week of intense public criticism, Rosenstein did end up appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel. However, Rosenstein hasn’t yet recused himself from oversight of the Mueller probe, even though the investigation is apparently looking into the events surrounding Comey’s firing.

The Senate shouldn’t take such vague assurances at face value again. Trump’s behavior all around the Russia scandal sure makes it seem like he’s covering up something, and he’s openly said he would have preferred an attorney general who didn’t recuse himself. And though Rosenstein in the end proved susceptible to public criticism, there’s no guarantee a new attorney general would.

So if Sessions does quit or is fired, senators need to demand that any new attorney general nominee sent up by Trump commits under oath to recuse himself or herself from the Russia investigation. If the Senate confirms anyone who has not made that sworn promise, they risk letting the president get away with a potential cover-up.