Trump’s Attacks On His Most Loyal Lieutenant Are Testing Other Core Allies

John Bazemore/AP
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President Donald Trump’s core supporters are upset.

Arch-conservative lawmakers, pro-Trump publications and even members of his own staff are sounding off about the President’s ongoing attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, questioning why he would turn against his most faithful lieutenant.

Trump feels justified in doing so, complaining on Twitter and to the press about Sessions’ “unfair” decision to recuse himself from the federal investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election—a move that he believes paved the way for the appointment of a special counsel. But no one in Trump’s Cabinet has done more to advance his anti-immigrant, pro-policing agenda than Sessions, and losing his ideologically-aligned attorney general risks compromising the promises Trump made to his most faithful supporters. With his approval numbers in the gutter and sinking even among Republican voters, that’s a risk Trump can hardly afford to take.

The President’s public criticism of his “beleaguered” attorney general began in earnest during an interview last week with the New York Times, and has flowed forth almost daily since then. In a Tuesday press conference with the prime minister of Lebanon, Trump refused to say if he would fire Sessions, saying only: “Time will tell.”

Sessions’ supporters have rushed to the barricades in his defense. Far-right site Breitbart News, a cheerleader of the Trump campaign and White House, has published a slew of articles with headlines like “Jeff Sessions’ Tenure at DOJ Marked by Progress on President Trump’s America First Agenda” and “Jeff Sessions: A Man Who Embodies the Movement That Elected Donald Trump President.” The site’s former chairman-turned-chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon, has reportedly tried to convince Trump to tone done his critiques, as have policy advisor Stephen Miller and White House deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn, both of whom previously worked for Sessions.

“I hate to see him being treated this way,” conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh despaired, while far-right, anti-immigrant pundit Ann Coulter told the Washington Post that Trump needed to “be a man” about the situation, calling his behavior towards Sessions “treacherous.”

Sessions’ former colleagues on Capitol Hill, where he served for two decades as a senator from Alabama, have also offered full-throated defenses.

“I’m 100 percent for the President, but I really have a hard time with this,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) told McClatchy.

“Attorney General Sessions has been a friend for years and he was a friend to the President before anyone,” echoed Rep. David Brat (R-VA). “He’s the most loyal, affable, respectable man you could ever have in that position.”

“There is no better man than Jeff Sessions, and no greater supporter…of [President #Trump’s] agenda,” former U.S. senator and tea party leader Jim DeMint said in a roundtable on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

Sessions’ allies have plenty of evidence to point to: in his six months in office, he’s fought on behalf of Trump’s efforts to ban immigrants and refugees from a handful of majority-Muslim countries and said his Justice Department “looks forward” to arguing the case in court. He rescinded an Obama-era regulation protecting transgender students from discrimination and moved forward with a number of policy shifts supported by police unions. Sessions even wrote a memo supporting the firing of FBI director James Comey months after recusing himself from overseeing any issue related to the 2016 campaign, including the federal Russia probe.

In the last 24 hours, Sessions’ DOJ has announced plans to cut federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to allow Immigration Customs and Enforcement agents into their prisons and jails. He is also expected to announce stepped-up efforts to pursue leak investigations. Both are issues Trump has heavily promoted.

Even the criticism Trump keeps making of Sessions, that he did not pursue investigations into Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server as secretary of state, appears unfounded.

“Sessions was literally just following Trump’s lead on that,” Josh Hammer, a member of the conservative Federalist Society who’s served as a law clerk for Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), told TPM. “Trump could not have been more explicit in the aftermath of the election that the whole ‘lock her up’ thing was just a campaign cry, and that he was not actually going to pursue that once he got into office.”

Two weeks after the election, Trump had said prosecuting Clinton was “just not something that I feel very strongly about.”

The near-universal pushback from his most ardent supporters does not seem to have made an impact on the President yet. In a Tuesday interview with the Wall Street Journal, he argued that Sessions only became the first senator to endorse his candidacy because of his large crowd sizes and said it was not “like a great, loyal thing.”

And on Wednesday morning, Trump fired off two new tweets disparaging his Attorney General—while Sessions was reportedly inside the White House.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
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