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Sessions Has Long Shown Unwavering Support For Trump


The relationship between President Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is not getting any better. In an interview with The New York Times, yesterday during a news conference in the Rose Garden and over and over this week on Twitter, the president has been openly criticizing Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and for, in Trump's view, going too easy on Hillary Clinton and government leakers. And all that criticism comes in stark contrast to what once appeared to be a close relationship. Jeff Sessions has been by Donald Trump's side almost since the beginning of his run for president.


JEFF SESSIONS: At this time in Americans' history, we need to make America great again.

MCEVERS: It's February 2016. It's just a couple days ahead of Super Tuesday. The Republican primary is still wide open. And Jeff Sessions becomes one of the first members of Congress to endorse Donald Trump.


SESSIONS: I am pleased to endorse Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States.

MCEVERS: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, welcome.


MCEVERS: When Jeff Sessions endorsed candidate Donald Trump, why was that significant?

JOHNSON: Well, Donald Trump had been considered a profoundly antiestablishment choice. And I guess he still is. But he did need support from somebody in Washington, and Jeff Sessions, it turns out, was that man. Jeff Sessions has a long record here in D.C. as a member of Congress. And he had cultivated a base of support tough on immigration, tough on crime that had carried with him over the years and carried to Donald Trump in Trump's campaign.


SESSIONS: Listen, this is a historic election. If we don't fix the immigration broken system now, it will not be fixed. This may be our last chance.

MCEVERS: And then after Trump is elected, he nominates Sessions to be attorney general. It's one of his earliest nominations. It's just a few days after the election. Talk about that.

JOHNSON: Widely considered a reward for Jeff Sessions' unstinting loyalty to Donald Trump. At the time, Trump said Sessions was a world-class legal mind and pointed out Sessions had served as attorney general for the state of Alabama and a U.S. attorney, the top federal prosecutor, in the state of Alabama, said he could think of no one better to serve as his U.S. attorney general. Sessions, for his part, said the Justice Department was his home in some ways, and the attorney general post would be likely the best job he would ever have in his career. That's saying something.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It is with great pride, very great pride that I say these words to you right now - Attorney General Jeff Sessions.


TRUMP: Welcome to the White House.

MCEVERS: So as attorney general, has Jeff Sessions been able to carry out this vision that he and Trump laid out on the campaign trail? What has he been able to accomplish?

JOHNSON: Yeah. And you can make an argument - and I think I would - that Jeff Sessions more than any other Cabinet member has had a real-time impact on the office he holds, on the Justice Department. He's reprioritized crime and drugs on the Justice Department's agenda. He talks about them in nearly every public appearance.


SESSIONS: I do not believe - and maybe I'm wrong, but I do not believe that this pop in crime is necessarily an aberration.

JOHNSON: He's talked about immigration. In fact, he's gone to the border more than once to speak about his priorities.


SESSIONS: This is a new era. This is the Trump era. The lawlessness, the abdication of duty to enforce our laws and the catch-and-release policies of the past are over.

JOHNSON: He talks about targeting sanctuary cities, places that don't cooperate as often with federal immigration authorities.


SESSIONS: Sanctuary cities are aiding these cartels to refill their ranks...

JOHNSON: And also, of course, resetting the relationship with local police departments.


SESSIONS: Help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness.

JOHNSON: Remember, the Obama administration investigated more than two dozen of them. Jeff Sessions doesn't want to do these investigations. He wants to be their partners.

MCEVERS: And then comes this pivotal moment - right? - March 2.


SESSIONS: Let me share a few thoughts...

MCEVERS: After The Washington Post reports that Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign despite saying in confirmation hearings that he had not met with the Russians. And Jeff Sessions recuses himself from the Russian investigation.


SESSIONS: I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.

MCEVERS: This, now we know, is a major turning point for President Trump. Why is it only now, do you think, that President Trump is talking about how upset he was with Jeff Sessions doing that back in March?

JOHNSON: Well, based on the people I've been speaking with for some weeks now, President Trump's anger rolls like a stone down the mountain. So the anger has been building over time. And in fact, he was yelling at Jeff Sessions both in person and over the phone in sometimes profane conversations about Sessions' decision to recuse himself. But that only broke into public view rather recently.


TRUMP: Sessions should never recused himself. And...

MCEVERS: This is an interview the president did last week with The New York Times.


TRUMP: If he would have recused himself before the job I would have said, thanks, Jeff, but I can't - you know, I'm not going to take you. It's extremely unfair - and that's a mild word - to the president.

MCEVERS: I just want to be clear here. The president has criticized Sessions a lot lately, even this morning on Twitter, but Sessions still has the job and says he will continue as long as it's appropriate.


SESSIONS: I have the honor of serving as attorney general. It's something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself. We love this job. We love this department. And I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate.

MCEVERS: But if he is fired ultimately by the president, what happens then?

JOHNSON: Well, one of the reasons some analysts in and outside the Justice Department are saying President Trump hasn't fired Jeff Sessions already is that he can't find the right person to replace Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department. And in fact, would somebody want to step down from a federal judgeship, a very safe job in the private sector, to come into this environment where the president is berating you in public, on Twitter, in press conferences and interviews with reporters? That's a tough sell for this post right now.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So I'm wondering if you would talk to us a little bit about whether you've lost confidence in Jeff Sessions, why you're sort of letting him twist in the wind rather than just making the call for him. Thank you.

TRUMP: Well, I don't think I am doing that. But I am disappointed in the attorney general. He should not have recused himself.

MCEVERS: So let's say Jeff Sessions does stay in the job. Does this tension between him and the president hinder his ability to carry out these priorities that he so clearly laid out from the beginning?

JOHNSON: Well, let's be honest, morale at the highest levels of the Justice Department is poor, to put it mildly. People are very distracted by this onslaught of criticism from the president every morning, every night. That said, Jeff Sessions is trying to forge ahead with his agenda. Just yesterday he put out some new guidance on federal grants for law enforcement agencies and folks who cooperate with federal immigration authorities. And we're hearing out of the Justice Department this week that sometime in the next seven to 10 days DOJ is going to announce a new policy or strategy toward leak investigations, something that has animated Donald Trump and angered him throughout his entire tenure as president so far.

MCEVERS: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks a lot.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF KONG'S "BONOBO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.