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If Sessions is fired, Trump could be stuck with no replacement

President Donald Trump firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to be a red line for some in the GOP. | Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images

Senate Republicans are in a jam when it comes to Jeff Sessions.

While resigned to President Donald Trump firing the attorney general after the election, they suspect that perhaps only a sitting senator could win confirmation as Sessions’ replacement — that is, someone they could trust not to interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. But no one from their ranks seems to want the job.

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Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said any new nominee must pledge to protect the Mueller investigation, and it would help if it was “Somebody from the body or someone who has had experience … or somebody you know personally, you know what you’re getting.” But he said it’s not going to be him, despite private belief among his colleagues he’s eyeing the job.

“No. I like being a senator. There are plenty of more qualified people than me. Bunches of them, thousands,” Graham said on Wednesday.

Asked about Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, a fellow Senate lawyer who was considered as FBI director, Graham said: “He’d be great if he wanted to do it.”

No dice, said Cornyn.

“We already have an attorney general,” said Cornyn, who some colleagues think could be confirmed to replace Sessions. “I love my job.”

And Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who some Republicans think might be interested in the job, is “very happy” in his current role as senator, a spokesman said.

With few obvious applicants for a job that seems to have built-in clashes with the president, some senators even suggest Trump might have to nominate a Democrat to have any hope of getting a new attorney general confirmed.

“Trump may very well want a change,” said retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “If I was the president I’d even consider picking a Democrat if I thought I couldn’t get anybody else through.”

The president, however, is looking for a staunch defender like Eric Holder was to Barack Obama, or a “guy looking out for his own interests,” said a Republican close to the White House. This person said that perhaps a senator could be persuaded to take the job, but was unsure anyway would meet Trump’s criteria of loyalty.

“I’m not sure that there’s anybody in the Senate besides maybe Lindsey Graham that Trump would want and even Lindsey, he really likes Lindsey, but I don’t know if he trusts him,” this person said. “I don’t know that there’s anybody in the Senate he feels that way about or that they feel that way about him.”

Jim Jordan

One Republican senator said a senator nominated as attorney general would have to have a squeaky clean record of praise for Trump and estimated that perhaps only four members of the Senate would qualify, calling it a “pretty small universe” of candidates.

The problem is acute enough that Republicans are pessimistic about a confirmation in the lame duck, when there will be little political imperative for red state Democrats to go along with a new attorney general. And if Republicans lose the Senate, an attorney general confirmation becomes even more difficult, if not impossible.

It’s a problem compounded by the fact that some Republicans, like Ben Sasse of Nebraska, have already said it would be “really difficult” for them to support a successor should Trump fire Sessions. Asked if he was confident he could confirm a Sessions successor this month, McConnell instead defend the attorney general and said he hopes he sticks around.

“Assuming that the Democrats voted together against the nominee, I think you would have some Republicans who may well vote against the new nomination,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).

The most optimistic Republicans say that the cloud may lift after the election, especially if Mueller’s investigation concludes. Many Republicans are worried about the politics of confirming a new attorney general amid the sensitive probe.

One out could be if Sessions leaves his job voluntarily. Firing Sessions seems to be a red line for some in the GOP.

Sasse “finds it difficult to envision a circumstance where he would confirm a successor to Attorney General Sessions if he is fired for faithfully executing his job. Attorney General Sessions has allowed Mr. Mueller to do his work and Senator Sasse believes that’s the way it should be,” said James Wegmann, a Sasse spokesman.

Mitch McConnell

The problem for the White House extends beyond filling the top job at the Justice Department. Trump has for months been mulling the prospect of replacing Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is now expected to be dismissed or to resign after the midterm elections, too. Once enamored of the retired Marine general and his nickname, “Mad Dog,” the president bragged to donors, “The guy never loses a battle, never loses.” But he has slowly come to realize that Mattis’s political views are more moderate than his sobriquet suggests and taken to referring to him behind closed doors as “Moderate Dog.”

But the White House’s short-list of prospective replacements for Mattis includes two Republican senators who have signaled they aren’t interested in the job, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Graham, both of whom are up for re-election in 2020, according to people familiar with the matter. And Cotton has already announced his campaign for reelection.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the newly installed Senate Armed Services chairman, said he’s advocating for Mattis to stay and whether he stays may “depend on whether I have anything or not to say about it.”

“He does a great job,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). Mattis should “absolutely” stay on, he said.

Already the EPA administrator job is vacant and filled by an acting leader, in part because the Senate GOP is not confident it can confirm a successor. Two more vacancies after the election in critical positions would be an unwelcome development unless Republicans find a way to expand their majority this fall.

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