President Donald Trump impressed senators Wednesday with a cogent, engaged pitch on health care that didn’t veer wildly from the script.
Within an hour, without seeking advice from his lawyers or his senior aides, Trump was in the Oval Office telling reporters from the New York Times that he regretted hiring Jeff Sessions as his attorney general and discussing a sensitive investigation his lawyers have told him to keep quiet about – a performance that once again left his most senior aides startled and scrambling to respond.
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Because only one staffer, Hope Hicks, was in Trump’s interview, others were left to hurriedly transcribe a tape recording of the meeting after the fact – just so they could know what the president had said. Others rushed to talk to Hicks in the West Wing. “Only Hope really knew,” said one senior administration official. “Everyone else was in the dark.”
It was another sharp reminder that no matter what policy initiatives the president says he wants to focus on – or how well he sticks to his talking points – that trouble is always right around the corner thanks to the Russia probe. Aides have tried to keep him away from the news media, and particularly from engaging in long on-the-record exchanges where he meanders, but Trump enjoys talking to reporters and wants to be quoted.
The president has grown obsessed with the Russia investigation, now overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller, and has been furious at Sessions since his decision in March to recuse himself.
In the Times interview, Trump also questioned the political leanings and ethics of Sessions’ deputy Rod Rosenstein, repeated his claims of conflicts on the part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and notably shifted his account of his dealings with FBI Director James Comey before he was abruptly fired in May.
Most of the sentiments Trump expressed in the interview did not come as a surprise to his top aides, but they recognized that the president putting those views on the record in such pointed terms was certain to trigger a media firestorm and increase tensions with the Justice Department.
Aides say Trump has no immediate plans to fire Mueller but often fumes about him, his team and where his investigation could lead. Trump told the Times that he believed it would be “a violation” for Mueller to look at his family’s financial dealings beyond anything involving Russia, for example. A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.
Rosenstein isn’t someone the president often mentions, one official said, but “it’s not like he is close with him.”
Trump has blamed Sessions for much of the mess he now finds himself in and sees the recusal as a pivotal moment in his presidency, advisers and aides say. And he thinks Sessions hasn’t always presented himself well in public. The top campaign adviser is no longer in the inner circle.
“His feelings are not new here. He just has never said it like this,” said the senior administration official said.
The official acknowledged that the statements could fuel questions about whether Sessions, one of Trump’s earliest backers in the campaign, will resign. While there seemed to be no immediate plans in place for that Wednesday night, administration officials said it was different for Trump to criticize Sessions publicly.
“If you’re Jeff you have to say, why am I sticking around and getting kicked like this?” the official said. “He’ll have to have a conversation with the president about it, though I’m not sure when.”
Several Justice Department veterans echoed that view, saying Trump’s statement of regret about nominating Sessions and his evident dissatisfaction with the attorney general—who offered to resign in May—raises questions about how Sessions can continue to credibly do his job.
“You got to be looking at Sessions and thinking this is ‘The Green Mile.’ This dude is walking down the hall for execution at some point, so how much are you going to worry about this guy as your boss?” said one ex-prosecutor who spent more than two decades at the department. “It’s unsettling and it’s weird.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Trump’s interview, but some of Sessions’ friends in Congress quickly rallied behind him and appeared to be urging him to stay in his post. And one person who knows Sessions well said he was already aware that Trump was frustrated with him, had unsuccessfully offered his resignation and had sought advice from the president’s top advisers on fixing the situation — to no avail. “He’s not just going to quit because of an interview,” this person said. “He’ll wait for it to blow over.”
“No one in America can match the excellence of @jeffsessions as Attorney General. Trump agenda would be crippled wo him,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said on Twitter.
Former officials said that while there have sometimes been quiet tensions between the Justice Department and the White House, they could not recall any episode in recent decades where the president publicly unloaded on the department’s leadership as Trump did Wednesday.
“We are in uncharted territory,” said Jan Miller, a former U.S. Attorney in Illinois under President George W. Bush and a former prosecutor in Maryland alongside Rosenstein. “I certainly don’t remember a time in my lifetime when the president has publicly questioned the sitting attorney general and deputy attorney general.”
The senior official who spoke to POLITICO said he was taken aback by the president’s claim that Rosenstein shouldn’t be overseeing the Russia probe because of his involvement in the Comey firing and by his suggestion the longtime prosecutor may be a closet liberal because he’s from Baltimore. “I’ve never really heard him go after Rosenstein. That surprised me,” the senior official said.
Rosenstein’s friend Miller dismissed the criticism: “These allegations of a conflict of interest against Rod are baseless. He’s going to continue to do what he needs to do and let the cards fall where they may.”
At a briefing Wednesday morning, Rosenstein told reporters it was “a great honor and privilege” to wok at the Justice Department. “I like my job,” he said. “I’m very happy to have this job.”
The Russia investigation has taken a new turn in recent days, with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. coming under scrutiny for a meeting he took at Trump Tower in June 2016 with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton.
The president told the New York Times that he did not believe he was personally under investigation, though it’s been reported that Mueller is exploring whether Trump’s firing of Comey was an attempt to obstruct justice. “I’m not under investigation,” Trump told the Times. “For what? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Trump did not consult before the interview with his lawyers, who weren’t aware that he was going to be talking about the investigation extensively, according to a person close to legal team. He didn’t prepare answers with top aides, some of whom were unaware he had been in such a lengthy interview with the New York Times.
While the chat was scheduled, it went longer than they expected and was far more wide-ranging, one official said. “It was Trump saying what he thought,” this person said. “It’s what he does every day on Twitter.”
Afterwards, some in his circle didn’t learn about the full extent of his comments until they posted online, an adviser said.
Several legal experts said they were troubled that Trump seemed to be faulting Sessions for stepping aside from the Russia probe, though that was the ethical thing for him to do.
“President Trump needs to understand and respect the necessity of independence and impartiality of law enforcement in our country,” said William Jeffress, a white-collar defense attorney who represented former President Richard Nixon and Vice President Dick Cheney’s senior aide, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, during the Valerie Plame CIA leak case.
Jeffress also suggested that the president’s apparent concern about Sessions and Rosenstein’s loyalty supported Comey’s claims that the president sought a pledge of loyalty in exchange for Comey remaining in his job.
“The president is indicating that he expects the Justice Department to serve his personal and political interests, which is flatly contrary to tradition in the administration of justice in the decades since Watergate,” Jeffress added.
Some lawyers also said Trump’s comments to the Times raise questions about statement he’s made in the past about key issues—like whether he asked Comey in February to shut down his investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who had direct contacts with Russian officials during the presidential transition.
Trump appears to have shifted his explanation on his conversation with Comey, who testified last month that the president urged him to “let this go” concerning the investigation into Michael Flynn, who had resigned the day before from his job as national security adviser.
At a May 18 press conference, Trump denied asking Comey to back away from the Flynn investigation and he later pledged to testify under oath to that effect.
In the Times interview, Trump had a different answer. “I don’t remember even talking to him about any of this stuff,” he said, prompting the former law enforcement official to take note that the president’s explanation on the Comey meeting “makes me wonder whether he’s starting to take his lawyers’ advice.”
“If he eventually has to answer FBI questions or testify under oath, saying he doesn’t recall is legally safer for him than denying outright that he asked Comey to ‘let it go,’” said a former law enforcement source.
One prominent former Justice official said the public criticism of Sessions could be a prelude to Trump forcing him out and then trying to shut down the Russia probe.
“The president’s move to force out Sessions may well be a prelude to replacing Sessions with a Trump loyalist who will not be recused from Russia matters and who can overrule deputy AG Rosenstein, dismiss Mueller and end his investigation,” said Walter Dellinger, a former acting solicitor general under President Bill Clinton.
But former Justice Department official Jim Trusty said that he doubts Trump’s comments on Sessions will set back the Trump-Russia investigation, since Sessions is already recused from that case.
“The good news is that Sessions credibility doesn’t matter for that investigation, but it is a historically strange moment to have a sitting president berate the sitting attorney general publicly,” Trusty said. “It’s a different world when the president is expressing regret that he hired the attorney general.”