WASHINGTON – The public standoff between the White House and the nation's senior law enforcement official took another strange turn Tuesday as President Donald Trump escalated his verbal attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was urged by fellow conservatives to stand his ground.
Trump was asked at a Rose Garden news conference if he would fire the attorney general, who angered the president by recusing himself from the criminal probe into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
"We'll see what happens," said Trump – a potentially ominous choice of phrase, considering the president used the same expression when talking to FBI Director James Comey before he was fired.
"I'm disappointed in the attorney general," Trump said. "If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office, and I would have picked somebody else. It's a bad thing not just for the president, but also for the presidency. I think it's unfair to the presidency."
He said he wanted Sessions "to be much tougher on leaks in the intelligence agencies that are leaking like they never have before. . . . You can't let that happen."
It is unheard of for a Cabinet-level official to be subjected to such visceral and public criticism, which has now gone on for a week. But Sessions showed no sign of buckling Tuesday, and in fact his position was bolstered by support from prominent conservatives taking his side in the fight with Trump.
Trump's reluctance to act on his anger and fire Sessions may be based in part on the lack of an immediate plan for a successor at the Justice Department. While Trump has discussed potential candidates to replace Sessions, senior White House officials have not settled on someone, and may not anytime soon, administration officials said. If Sessions were to be fired without even a temporary replacement lined up, the deputy attorney general who oversees the Russia probe, Rod Rosenstein, would assume authority over the entire Justice Department.
One Republican close to the White House said a number of senior aides, including newly hired communications director Anthony Scaramucci, have urged Trump to sit down with Sessions and work through their differences. So far, there has been little enthusiasm for that suggestion, the Republican said.
One informal adviser to the Trump White House said there is another reason Trump has yet to fire Sessions: "The president doesn't want to be seen as firing another law enforcement official."
After Trump fired Comey, one unintended consequence was the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel overseeing the Russia probe.
Earlier Tuesday, Trump had tweeted that Sessions was "very weak" on investigating Hillary Clinton's "crimes" and had not aggressively hunted those who have leaked intelligence secrets since he has been in office.
The president's insistence that Clinton be investigated runs contrary to his own past statements, and the decision by the Justice Department and the FBI last year to close the investigation into her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. Sessions has recused himself from Clinton-related matters, citing his involvement with the presidential campaign as one of Trump's major advisers.
The public humiliation of Sessions at the hands of the president he helped get elected was galling to many conservatives, who see Sessions as the Cabinet official who has most assiduously pursued Trump's policy goals, from cracking down on illegal immigration to targeting street gangs.
Officials said Sessions is due to announce in coming days a number of criminal leak investigations based on news accounts of sensitive intelligence information. And within hours of Trump's public broadside, the Justice Department announced it would change a police funding program to add new requirements that cities help federal agents find undocumented immigrants to receive grants.
On Tuesday, Republicans publicly rallied to Sessions' defense. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Sessions "is among the most honorable men in government today. . . . I have full confidence in Jeff's ability to perform the duties of his office and, above all, uphold the rule of law."
And Breitbart, the conservative website, posted an article saying the president's public attack on Sessions "only serves to highlight Trump's own hypocrisy" and it warned that the president's stance could "fuel concerns from his base [which sees] Sessions as the best hope to fulfill Trump's immigration policies."
Even among Democrats, Trump's treatment of Sessions raised concerns. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Calif., the ranking Democrat of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "What's happening is just terrible. The attorney general did the right thing. The attorney general was nothing but loyal to Donald Trump. He took an oath of office to represent the Constitution, the law and the people."
Current and former Justice Department officials said they hope Sessions holds out, refusing to resign as a means of defending the department's independence.
One former Justice Department official said the president's anger seems to stem from a misunderstanding about how the department actually works. The White House, he said, should not be interfering with criminal investigations.
"For those of us that want this administration to succeed, this is incredibly self-destructive behavior," the official said.
Justice Department employees said the president's comments are damaging the reputation and morale of the department.
"It's just insanity," said one employee who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. Another official said there was still hope in the building that Sessions could survive, and that Trump's fury might abate. "This might be the one instance where everyone else just kind of rolls their eyes and moves on," the official said.
The surge of support for Sessions is remarkable, considering how isolated he has been within the government. Sessions is viewed warily by many at the FBI for his role in Comey's firing, and he is increasingly distant from the White House, despite the fact that some of his former Senate staffers serve there.
Administration officials said the president and his staff are also upset that Sessions held a news conference last Friday, in which he said he planned to remain on the job. Some in the White House saw that statement as unnecessarily antagonizing the president.
"Can you imagine any other president having to go this far to tell someone you need to go?" said a person informally advising the White House. "When Sessions said he wouldn't resign, it's like poking fire. You know who you're dealing with."
Yet within the Justice Department, that reaction was viewed as another indication of how little White House officials appear to understand what the Justice Department does. The news conference had been scheduled a week earlier based on an arrest overseas, and a senior European law enforcement official had flown in to participate.
Canceling the news conference, Justice Department officials reasoned at the time, would be a bigger problem than going forward. Sessions tried to keep his answers low-key, they added.
Officials at Justice said the standoff is beginning to affect the department's work. One official said the pace of meetings with senior leaders has slowed, and the dust-up has distracted from some policy goals.
At a confirmation hearing Tuesday, Brian Benczkowski, a former Sessions aide and a nominee for assistant attorney general, said he had "every confidence" that his ex-boss made the right decision to recuse himself on the Russia investigation, and forcefully asserted that Mueller – whose work he said he did not consider a "witch hunt" – would do the right thing.
"He is someone who is widely understood to be a man of integrity, a man of independence, and someone who I believe will conduct his investigation with those characteristics right at the forefront, and I also believe he'll insist on those same things from the people who work for him," Benczkowski said.
The Washington Post's Matt Zapatosky, Robert Costa and Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.