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Senate wall of support for Sessions splinters

Top Senate Republicans sent dueling signals on Thursday about whether it would be safe for President Donald Trump to fire the attorney general he can’t stand.

GOP leaders moved quickly to quell a rebellion against Jeff Sessions after Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa signaled publicly that they’d be willing to give Trump what he wants and confirm a new attorney general after the midterms — even at the cost of betraying a former Senate colleague.

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“Do we really want to go through that kind of confirmation fight? Is there anybody we can confirm? Our conference supports Jeff,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader, said in an interview with POLITICO. “Our members are behind him. At least that’s the message they’ve tried to convey to him.”

The Senate majority whip, John Cornyn of Texas echoed those concerns. “It would be bad for the country, it would be bad for the president, it would be bad for the Department of Justice for him to be forced out under these circumstances,” Cornyn told reporters.

But by day‘s end, some senators said the writing was on the wall.

In a phone call on Thursday evening, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that after the day’s events it felt to him like “moves are being made” to oust Sessions after the election.

“It’s very apparent to me that the president wants to do something to Attorney General Sessions. But it’s also apparent that in the interim that Sessions owns him,” Corker said. “It’s apparent that after the midterms he will make a change and choose someone to do what he wants done. … It just feels to me that after the midterms the president will make the change.”

The back-and-forth on the Hill came just as Sessions took the rare step of defending himself and his leadership of the Justice Department after a withering attack from Trump in an interview with Fox News that aired early Thursday over Sessions’ recusal from the Russia probe now overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller: “Even my enemies say that ‘Jeff Sessions should have told you that he was going to recuse himself and then you wouldn’t have put him in.’ He took the job and then he said, ‘I’m going to recuse myself.’ I said, ‘What kind of a man is this?’”

Trump’s jabs against his top law enforcement officer have grown routine in recent months, but carried extra weight in the wake of this week’s conviction of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, on charges of tax evasion in a case that grew out of the Mueller probe — and the simultaneous guilty plea by longtime Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen on federal campaign finance violations in New York related to his payoffs to two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump.

Sessions responded by blasting out a statement: “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action.”

Graham touched off the Hill debate by saying he was open to confirming a new attorney general — something he and other Republican senators have spent months insisting they would not do, in part to prevent Trump from setting off a chain of events they feared would lead to Mueller’s dismissal, something they worried could be a potentially fatal blow to his presidency.

But Graham told a few reporters late Thursday that the time for concern has passed because of how developed the Mueller investigation is: “Mueller is down the road. To those who believe that the only way that you can protect Mueller is to keep Jeff Sessions as attorney general forever I don’t buy it.”

Two Republicans close to Trump said that the president did not appear to be on the verge of firing Sessions. But Graham’s remarks were the first sign that Capitol Hill may be starting to bend to Trump’s will when it comes to desire to send his attorney general packing — and they may have made it more likely.

Jeff Sessions. | Getty Images

The whole episode left many Republicans’ heads spinning. It was a leap from where Graham was just a year ago, when he said: “There will be no confirmation hearing for a new attorney general in 2017… If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay.”

Graham may take over the Judiciary Committee after November’s midterm elections. That would put him in charge of confirming Sessions’ replacement, something that Grassley ruled out a year ago.

But shortly after Graham’s remarks were published, Grassley changed his tune and told Bloomberg that he has “time for hearings on nominees that the president might send up here that I didn’t have last year.”

The remarks from two top Republicans were not echoed by many of their colleagues, who continued to caution the president against firing Sessions. “I think Jeff Sessions has done a good job. That’s my personal opinion. I’m not trying to tell the president to do his job, but I wish the president and the attorney general could stay on and work out their differences,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), a Judiciary Committee member. “In this environment, I don’t know that you’d get another attorney general confirmed.”

Though more than a half-dozen GOP senators backed Sessions publicly after Graham and Grassley’s comments, some of the attorney general’s closest allies admitted that his job is still in the balance — much as it has been for more than a year.

“There’s a lot of tension down there. That’s all I know is what I see and read,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Sessions’ longtime Senate colleague. “A lot of those jobs are tenuous when you’re in the Cabinet, especially when you’re under fire. I don’t know.”

Donald Trump. | Getty Images

The president has been furious with Sessions since his decision in March 2017 to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s inquiry in Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and he has repeatedly derided him both in public and in private. But two Republicans close to the White House say Trump has not talked any more frequently about firing him over the past week than at other times during his presidency — and that they don’t expect him to do so imminently.

Rather, Graham’s comments appeared to be an unprompted invitation to the president to take action if he wishes — a wink and nod gesture that he has a friend in the Senate. If Grassley chooses to go the Senate Finance Committee after the election, Graham would become Judiciary Committee chairman. Graham is also up for reelection in 2020 and being close to Trump would help stave off a primary challenge.

If the president fired Sessions and the Senate failed to confirm a replacement, it would box in Trump by leaving Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — another administration official Trump perceives as an enemy — in charge of the department. And it would raise major questions about the Justice Department’s independence.

“It’s better for the president if Jeff Sessions stays as attorney general. Clearly,it would look like political interference if Jeff Sessions were to be dismissed,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.)

On Thursday, however, some staunch Sessions allies remained tight-lipped, and even his defenders were sending a softer message. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas referred a reporter to his press office, and Sen. David Perdue of Georgie, a close Trump ally, said he had no opinion either way. “Is that up again?” Perdue said. “I haven’t heard anything like that. I don’t have any opinion.”

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