For Trump and Sessions, a warm beginning turned into an icy standoff

Washington Post

They met more than a decade ago, when the genteel junior senator from Alabama invited the brash real estate mogul to testify on Capitol Hill about the renovation of the United Nations. Jeff Sessions was taken by Donald Trump, calling him a "breath of fresh air for this Senate."

But their bond was cemented two years ago when Trump began to move toward a presidential bid. Trump's adviser at the time, Sam Nunberg, said Trump saw Sessions as a similar type: a hard-liner on immigration who was far from beloved by the elites and wealthy donors within the Republican Party.

"He saw Sessions as someone he could develop a natural rapport with," Nunberg said in an interview. "Sessions was 100 percent simpatico on Trump's major issues: immigration, trade, veterans' care. He was also willing to engage. That was the start."

Now, the conversation inside the White House - and across Washington - is about the end.

Although Sessions was the first high-profile politician to endorse Trump and backed him through the campaign's most tumultuous moments, the president is all about now. In his view, Sessions' decision, after he was confirmed as attorney general, to remove himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, was a breach of Trump's apparent belief that it was Sessions's job to be loyal and protect him.

The unlikely friendship has become an icy standoff - one that would have been hard to imagine on a sticky August day in 2015, when Trump swooped into Sessions' home town, circling Ladd-Peebles Stadium as a crowd of thousands roared.

Sessions and his wife served as hosts.

Backstage in Mobile, as they mingled beneath the towering bleachers near a row of black SUVs, Sessions and Trump warmly shared stories about politics and Alabama, exchanges The Washington Post witnessed. Sessions, sweaty in a dark suit, was ebullient as Trump charmed him. The two men, born months apart in 1946, connected as populist brothers - one loud, the other understated.

Once on stage, the good feelings continued. "Jeff! Come up! Where's Jeff? Get over here, Jeff," Trump said. "Look at him! He's like 20 years old. Unbelievable guy!"

When Sessions stepped onto the sprawling dais, he briefly put on a white "Make America Great Again" hat as Trump flashed a bright smile and clapped.

"Welcome to my home town," Sessions said. "The American people - these people - want somebody in the presidency who stands up for them."

Sessions later ducked in to Trump's motorcade to see Trump off at the airport, still wearing that white hat. Sessions would finally endorse Trump in February 2016 in Madison, Alabama, but by then it was a formality.

He soon became one of his foreign policy advisers. Sessions was even considered as a possible running mate, according to two former campaign officials.

On election night, in his victory speech at the New York Hilton, Trump gave Sessions a big shout-out.

"The first senator, first major, major politician, and let me tell you, he is highly respected in Washington because he's as smart as you get: Senator Jeff Sessions. Where is Jeff?"

As the crowd applauded, Trump added, "Great man."

Russia and recusal

Four months later, on March 2, Trump was touring the new supercarrier the USS Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Virginia, when a reporter shouted a question about an event unfolding 130 miles away that would indelibly change the president's relationship with his attorney general.

"Should Sessions have recused himself from investigations into your campaign and Russia?" the reporter asked Trump, who was wearing a Navy jacket and baseball cap inscribed with the carrier's name.

"I don't think so at all," Trump answered flatly, a flash of irritation on his face as he brushed past reporters. "I don't think he should do that at all."

It was too late.

Sessions had already decided to step aside. But he had not consulted his boss, the president of the United States, an action that would trigger a deep-seated anger that has seethed to this day.

Just three weeks after Trump swore him into office as the nation's 84th attorney general, Sessions held his first news conference on the seventh floor of Main Justice on Pennsylvania Avenue. It came a few hours after Trump toured the ship.

The night before, The Post had revealed that Sessions had twice met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign and did not disclose those contacts to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing.

"I have recused myself from matters that deal with the Trump campaign," Sessions said. Sessions, who had served more than a decade in the Justice Department before becoming a senator, said he did so after department lawyers advised him to recuse himself from any investigation involving the 2016 election, including the probe into whether anyone from the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

Trump was enraged. The next day, the president left in a fury for Mar-a-Lago for the weekend, telling his aides that Sessions should not have recused himself - and tense discussions in the Oval Office were caught on camera by CNN. The bond between the two men had shattered.

Trump confided to White House officials that he felt more exposed than ever to his critics with Sessions ceding control of the Russia investigation to the nominee for deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, a U.S. attorney who had not yet been confirmed and whom Trump hardly knew.

That first flush of anger has never subsided. In fact, Trump's wrath has grown into a cold war with Sessions, particularly after Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the Russia probe, according to White House officials and people close to Sessions, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

For four months, Trump has rarely spoken to his attorney general, and when he has, it has been perfunctory.

‘Hunkering down’

One recent evening, Sessions and his wife, Mary, went to dinner at the Capitol Hill townhouse of his old friend Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Over pork brisket and banana pudding, Sessions and his wife chatted with Cornyn and his wife, Sandy, about their families and mutual friends.

But when Cornyn asked the attorney general about his new job as the nation's top law enforcement official, his friend seemed a little dispirited.

"He came into the office with a clear agenda and ideas about what he wanted to do as attorney general," Cornyn said in an interview. "There's a lot of work to do, and there's not a lot of support there for him yet. He expressed his frustration with being distracted from that mission that he had so clearly in mind."

People close to Sessions say he has been hurt by the president's barbs and cold shoulder but is hoping the storm will pass. Trump's clash with Sessions mirrors bitter fights he has had with executives at the Trump Organization, according to veteran Trump watchers.

"He's always dealt with people this way," said former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, who interacted with Trump when he was building his businesses in Atlantic City. "You'd see him go hot and cold with his casino executives. And if he's down on you, he's really down on you and he's difficult to work with."

Since March, Sessions has been trying to "compartmentalize" the tension with the president, one person close to the attorney general said. He comes to work at 6 a.m. and works late, methodically moving forward with his conservative agenda to crack down on illegal immigration, provide more support to state and local law enforcement, and overhaul the criminal justice policies of the Obama administration.

"He's hunkering down, a quiet guy who's diligent and professional," said former senator Bob Smith, R-N.H., a close friend to Sessions during their time in the legislature.

Trump began in June to publicly blame Sessions for the trouble he was facing. On the morning of June 5, Trump criticized the Justice Department for devising a "politically correct" version of his travel ban, ignoring the fact that he had signed the executive order for the revised version, and called on the department to seek a "much tougher version."

Behind the scenes, the strain between Sessions and Trump was becoming untenable. At one point, shortly before the president traveled to the Middle East in late May, Sessions offered to resign, according to a White House official.

Trump turned it down. The president made clear to Sessions how disappointed he was in his recusal decision but indicated he still had faith in him. The moment passed.

On June 12, Sessions attended a Cabinet meeting in which nearly every member praised the president. Sessions used his chance to speak up to talk about policy and detail how the Justice Department was going after the violent MS-13 gang and illegal immigration. He said it was "an honor to serve you in that regard."

Trump nodded and called the efforts "a great success."

"You're right, Jeff, thank you very much," Trump said.

But people familiar with the relationship say that for Trump, policy is not the issue and that he is consumed with a feeling of vulnerability on Russia. That was evident the next day, June 13, when Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. While Sessions aggressively pushed back on any suggestion that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, his appearance riled Trump, who closely monitored it on cable television, according to people close to the president.

For Trump, Sessions' testimony was a reminder that the attorney general could do nothing for him on Russia other than answer lawmakers' questions; he was no longer a useful ally.

Five weeks later, in an interview with the New York Times, Trump's hostility exploded into public view. He told a group of reporters that if he had known Sessions would recuse himself, he would never have chosen him as attorney general.

Trump's tirade continued for days on Twitter, where he pronounced Sessions "beleaguered" and "very weak"; at a news conference in the Rose Garden with the Lebanese prime minister, where the president described himself as "disappointed" in Sessions; and in the Wall Street Journal, where he mocked Sessions' loyalty to him during the campaign, saying he just liked the large crowds at rallies.

"I appointed a man to a position and then shortly after he gets the position, he recused himself," Trump told the Wall Street Journal. "I said, 'What's that all about? Why didn't you tell me that you were going to do that? And I wouldn't have appointed you.' "

Peter Wehner, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, said "it's very rare for a president to lash out at a Cabinet member like Trump has been doing."

"We've never seen anything that's reached this level of contempt - this twisting in the wind, the knife going in and out, in and out, over and over again," Wehner said.

Trump has told aides and friends that if former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had been the attorney general, the situation would not be as dire. But they have responded that Giuliani would be nearly impossible to confirm in the Senate because of his foreign business entanglements.

"The problem for Trump is: Who would be attorney general, if not Sessions?" said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates restrictions on immigration.

"Judge Jeanine?" Krikorian asked, referring to Fox News host Jeanine Pirro.

At the pleasure of the president

In recent days, several White House officials, including former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and counsel Donald McGahn, have gently advised Trump that firing Sessions would have sweeping and unpredictable consequences for his presidency, both on the investigative and political fronts. And Republican lawmakers along with conservative organizations, including Breitbart News, have rallied to the attorney general's defense.

While Trump has listened to his aides' arguments, they have not been able to curb the president's rage - and officials have kept their heads down.

Two key Sessions allies in the West Wing - senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn, who worked for Sessions in the Senate - have avoided becoming caught in the drama and instead have focused on their own responsibilities.

"They're . . . making clear that while they will always be close to Sessions, they're Trump guys now," said one White House official, describing the dynamic. "It's what they have to do in this environment. The president is not going to change his mind, and Stephen and Rick know that if they spoke up, it wouldn't do much."

White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who had been the early conduit in connecting Trump and his advisers with Sessions, has been an advocate for the attorney general whenever the topic comes up, inside and outside the White House.

"But Steve is in a delicate position where he can't put everything on the line to save him," said one White House official. "So they have a good relationship, but it's not like Steve is able to be vocal." A second official said Bannon talks up Sessions to his friends on the right outside of the White House, which they said is one way he can boost Sessions without engaging in potentially risky White House warfare.

While part of Trump's lore is the persona of a quick-to-dismiss executive, cultivated on NBC's "The Apprentice," the president has a history of brooding and grousing at length, without making uncomfortable decisions.

Trump associates say those out of favor can survive. During the campaign, Corey Lewandowski, Trump's first campaign manager, seemed on the verge of dismissal at numerous points in the race. But he lasted until June 2016.

Trump had a falling-out with adviser Roger Stone, but Stone has returned to the president's orbit. Some former business enemies such as Steve Wynn are now his friends. He scrapped with the late Roger Ailes over Fox News coverage, and then eventually brought Ailes into his campaign's circle.

So Sessions is soldiering on.

His chief of staff, Jody Hunt, told Priebus in one of several conversations he has had with him lately that the attorney general had no intention of stepping down, according to people familiar with the exchanges.

On Thursday, Sessions traveled to El Salvador to highlight his work to counter the violent transnational street gang MS-13.

In San Salvador, the attorney general spoke to Tucker Carlson, whose Fox News show Trump is known to watch. He said that Trump's personal attacks on him have been "kind of hurtful" but that he understands his feelings "because this has been a big distraction for him."

Sessions cited all the things he's done to push forward the Trump agenda, especially his efforts to curb illegal immigration. "We share such a common interest there," Sessions said.

But Sessions stood firm on the action that turned the president against him.

"I'm confident I made the right decision, a decision that's consistent for the rule of law," Sessions said. "An attorney general who doesn't follow the law is not very effective in leading the Department of Justice."

Sessions plans to hold a news conference this week on prosecuting national security leaks, an issue that animates Trump. But he knows his future remains precarious.

"I serve at the pleasure of the president," Sessions said. "If he wants to make a change, he can certainly do so, and I would be glad to yield in that circumstance, no doubt about it."

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