Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker
WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered to resign in recent weeks as he told President Trump he needed the freedom to do his job, according to two people who were briefed on the discussion. On Tuesday, the White House declined to say whether Trump still had confidence in his attorney general.
“I have not had that discussion with him,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, told reporters in the White House briefing room, responding to questions about whether the president had soured on Sessions.
Spicer’s remarks came after the New York Times reported that Trump had vented intermittently about Sessions since the attorney general recused himself from any Russia-related investigations conducted by the Department of Justice. Trump has fumed to allies and advisers ever since, suggesting that Sessions made a needless decision.
He has also blamed Sessions for the fallout from an executive order that the president signed putting in place a travel ban on seven primarily Muslim countries, which courts have blocked.
The situation between Sessions and Trump has grown so tense that the attorney general told Trump in recent weeks that he needed the freedom to do his job and that he could resign if that was what was wanted, according to the two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House matters. Trump did not take him up on the offer.
A spokesman for Sessions declined to comment. A White House spokeswoman did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The frustration at times goes both ways. Sessions was upset when the president appointed a task force to tackle the opioids crisis in March and tapped Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to lead it without consulting the attorney general, according to an administration official who asked not to be named discussing internal matters.
The offer by Sessions to discuss resigning, however lightly he made it, was a surprising move from one of the president’s earliest and most vocal supporters. Sessions was an early endorser of Trump’s candidacy, and his former spokesman, Stephen Miller, is now Trump’s main speechwriter and a policy adviser.
The discontent was on display on Monday in a series of stark early-morning postings on Twitter in which the president faulted his own Justice Department for its defense of his travel ban on visitors from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Trump accused Sessions’ department of devising a “politically correct” version of the ban – as if the president had nothing to do with it.
In private, the president’s exasperation has been even sharper. He has intermittently fumed for months over Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election, according to people close to Trump who insisted on anonymity to describe internal conversations. In Trump’s view, they said, it was that recusal that led eventually to the appointment of a special counsel who took over the investigation.
Behind-the-scenes frustration would not be unprecedented in the Oval Office. Other presidents have become estranged from the Justice Department over time, notably President Bill Clinton, who bristled at Attorney General Janet Reno’s decisions to authorize investigations into him. But Trump’s tweets on Monday made his feelings evident for all to see and raised questions about how he is managing his own administration.
“They wholly undercut the idea that there is some rational process behind the president’s decisions,” said Walter E. Dellinger, who served as acting solicitor general under Clinton. “I believe it is unprecedented for a president to publicly chastise his own Justice Department.”
In his Twitter posts, Trump complained that his original executive order barring visitors from select Muslim-majority nations and refugees from around the world was revised in hopes of passing legal muster after it was struck down by multiple federal courts. The second version, however, has also been blocked, and last week the Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court.
“The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted to S.C.,” Trump wrote.
Then he added: “The Justice Dept. should ask for an expedited hearing of the watered down Travel Ban before the Supreme Court – & seek much tougher version!”
But the messages caused considerable head scratching around Washington since it was Trump who signed the revised executive order and, presumably, agreed to the legal strategy in the first place. His posts made it sound like the Justice Department was not part of his administration.
The White House had little to add to the president’s messages on Monday. Asked why Trump signed the revised order if he did not support it, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said he did it only to convince a California-based appeals court. “He was looking to, again, match the demands laid out by the 9th Circuit and, for the purpose of expediency, to start looking at the best way possible to move that process forward,” she said.
Alan Dershowitz, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School who has frequently defended Trump on cable news, said the president was clearly voicing frustration with Sessions. But he said it was not clear to him that it was a personal issue as opposed to an institutional one with the office.
“What he’s saying is, ‘I’m the president, I’m the tough guy, I wanted a very tough travel ban and the damn lawyers are weakening it’ – and clients complain about lawyers all the time,” Dershowitz said. “I see this more as a client complaining about his lawyer. The lawyer in this case happens to be Jeff Sessions.”
David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer who served in the White House and Justice Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said Trump clearly looked at the case from the lens of a businessman who did not get his money’s worth.
“He’s unhappy when the results don’t come in,” Rivkin said. “I’m sure he was convinced to try the second version, and the second iteration did not do better than the first iteration, so the lawyers in his book did not do a good job. It’s understandable for a businessman.”
Sessions and the Justice Department remained silent but at least one lawyer close to the administration suggested that there was consternation in the department over the president’s messages. The frustration over the travel ban might be a momentary episode were it not for the deeper resentment Trump feels toward Sessions, according to people close to the president. When Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, Trump learned about it only when he was in the middle of another event, and he publicly questioned the decision.