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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

How US attorney general and staunch Trump supporter fell from favour

Jeff Sessions finds himself subjected to days of blistering public criticism and Twitter tirades by a president furious at his handling of the Russia investigation. It is an unprecedented situation for a key cabinet member

US president Donald Trump speaks during the swearing-in ceremony for attorney general Jeff Sessions (R) at the White House in Washington, on February 9, 2017. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
US president Donald Trump speaks during the swearing-in ceremony for attorney general Jeff Sessions (R) at the White House in Washington, on February 9, 2017. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Jeff Sessions was the first senator to endorse Donald Trump’s insurgent run to claim the Republican nomination for president.

His reward was the plum post of attorney general, where he has been busy implementing his hardline views on immigration.

Now, however, he finds himself subjected to days of blistering public criticism and Twitter tirades by a president furious at his handling of the Russia investigation. It is an unprecedented situation for a key cabinet member.

On Tuesday, Mr Trump used a White House rose garden news conference with Lebanon’s prime minister to heap further humiliation on his embattled attorney general.

In response to a question about Mr Sessions’, the president was blunt. “I’m disappointed in the attorney general,’’ he said. Asked if he would sack him, Mr Trump replied, "We will see what happens. Time will tell. ”

It marked an extraordinary moment in an unconventional administration, showing how such a staunch supporter — and one of the architect’s of Mr Trump’s rise — could fall so dramatically from favour.

In the president’s eyes, Mr Sessions failed a crucial test of loyalty when he stood aside in March from the department of justice investigation into Russian ties to the Trump campaign.

He did so after admitting he had earlier failed to disclose two meetings with the Russian ambassador. As such, it amounted to an awkward conflict of interest.

However, in recent weeks Mr Trump has repeatedly returned to Mr Sessions’ recusal as a pivotal moment, allowing the appointment of an aggressive special counsel who has widened an investigation that now hangs like a dark cloud over every corner of the White House.

“If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office, and I would have picked somebody else," Mr Trump told the gathering in the rose garden. “It’s a bad thing not just for the president, but also for the presidency. I think it’s unfair to the presidency.”

The public vote of no confidence came hot on the heels of another Twitter onslaught, in which Mr Trump called the country's most senior prosecutor “weak” for failing to pursue Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server scandal. A day earlier he labelled him “beleaguered”.

Six times during an interview with the Wall Street Journal he said he was disappointed with Mr Sessions.

The comments have prompted speculation that a president who rose to global fame using the catchphrase “You’re fired” on a TV reality show is reluctant to sack a close ally. Instead he is seeking to make his position so uncomfortable that he is forced to resign.

It may also suggest the president lacks a bigger strategy or a candidate to take over the department of justice. After firing James Comey as head of the FBI, the removal of another senior figure may prompt fresh allegations that Mr Trump is trying to derail the Russia investigation.

John Feehery, a Republican strategist, said tensions between an attorney general, responsible for enforcing the law of the land, and the White House were nothing new. What was unusual, was the very public form that tension had taken.

“I think Trump thought he would get a better, more loyal attorney general but I think Sessions is just trying to do his job,” Mr Feehery said. “The thing with this president is that he sees loyalty as a one-way street. He doesn’t like to be criticised but is more than happy to do some criticising of his own.”

But Mr Feehery believes Mr Trump would stop short of firing a figure who was crucial to implementing much of his agenda.

For his part, Mr Sessions has let it be known through aides that he has no intention of stepping down.

His public humiliation has angered many conservatives, who see in Mr Sessions a stalwart ally in an unpredictable administration and who have applauded his crackdown on illegal immigration.

A string of lurid headlines on right-wing websites have begun talking up the prospect of a looming civil war within the Republican movement. Breitbart News, which was once led by Steve Bannon — now Mr Trump’s chief strategist — led its site with the headline: “Trump vs. Trump: Potus endangers immigration agenda.”

As Mr Sessions fights for his political life, his justice department on Tuesday announced plans to increase funding for federal agents investigating undocumented immigrants.

That stance won him supportive comments from Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council and Jenny Beth Martin, who leads the Tea Party Patriots.

And several former colleagues of Mr Sessions in the Senate issued statements of support, suggesting they will not necessarily fall into line behind their president.

“Jeff Sessions is one of the most decent people I've ever met in my political life,” said Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina.

“President Trump's tweet today suggesting Attorney General Sessions pursue prosecution of a former political rival is highly inappropriate.”

Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College, said Mr Sessions would serve as a warning to candidates who were thinking of working for this administration.

“I think a real risk for this president is that he needs talented people who know how Washington works,” she said. “In this administration they have so many jobs yet to fill and it’s becoming increasingly clear they cannot find qualified people to take those jobs."

But the speculation continues.

Anthony Scaramucci, the president's new communications director, added to the uncertainty about the attorney general's future when he said, "We'll come to a resolution soon.”