(CNN) — Hours after being repeatedly insulted by President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions just did something he rarely, if ever, does: He punched back — hard.
Here’s Sessions’ full statement:
“I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in, which is why we have had unprecedented success at effectuating the President’s agenda — one that protects the safety and security and rights of the American people, reduces violent crime, enforces our immigration laws, promotes economic growth, and advances religious liberty.
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. However, no nation has a more talented, more dedicated group of law enforcement investigators and prosecutors than the United States.
I am proud to serve with them and proud of the work we have done in successfully advancing the rule of law.”
The first line come as a direct rebuttal to Trump putting Sessions on blast with this line in his interview with “Fox and Friends” host Ainsley Earhardt: “I put in an attorney general that never took control of the Justice Department. Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department and it’s a sort of an incredible thing.”
That was far from the only time Trump ran down Sessions in the Fox interview. He told Earhardt that “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.” Trump added that the only reason he gave Sessions a job in his administration was because he was loyal. And, in perhaps the most cutting and personal attack, Trump said this of Sessions: “He took the job and then he said, ‘I’m going to recuse myself.’ I said, ‘What kind of a man is this?'”
“What kind of man is this” — a shot at both Sessions’ masculinity and his ethics.
What’s remarkable here is not that Trump attacked Sessions publicly. After all, Trump has called Sessions “weak” and “beleaguered” and told multiple news outlets that he would have never hired Sessions if he had known the attorney general was going to recuse himself in the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
No, the truly unique thing here is that Sessions decided to actually speak up in his own defense. The only other time — that I can find — that Sessions directly responded to a Trump attack was back at the end of February, when the President tweeted this:
“Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!”
Sessions shot back that he had “initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary,” adding: “As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.”
Other than that one flare-up, however, Sessions has seemed content to stay silent amid Trump’s assaults — seemingly unwilling to be bullied into quitting his post and/or wanting Trump to be forced to fire him.
Sessions’ latest statement seems like a (re)ramping-up of the longstanding tensions between the two men. It reads like a dare by Sessions for Trump to fire him — a calling of the bully on his big talk.
What occasioned this moment? It’s not hard to imagine that Trump, watching the conviction of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the plea deal of former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen on Tuesday, would fly into a rage directed at Sessions. After all, both of those cases came as the direct result of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe — an investigation that Trump believes not only should have never been started but is, in fact, illegal. (It’s not.)
Trump’s thinking goes like this: Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is the root of all the problems he faces. With Sessions out of the picture, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided to appoint Mueller as special counsel. If Sessions hadn’t recused himself, in Trump’s mind, none of that happens. And would not be in the bind he knows he’s in — even if he presents himself publicly as entirely unconcerned about the Mueller investigation or the Manafort and Cohen developments.
Now, Sessions’ decision to recuse himself was seen, by most legal experts, as the right thing to do. He was a prominent surrogate for Trump during the 2016 campaign and, during his confirmation hearings to be attorney general, had failed to mention several interactions he had with Russians during the course of the campaign. (A year after his recusal, Sessions was asked during an appearance at the Federalist Society whether he regretted the move. “No I don’t,” he said. “I think that’s what I had to do.”)
To Trump, however, the rightness of the legal move paled in comparison to the lack of loyalty Sessions had showed him by recusing himself. “Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the President,” Trump told the New York Times in an interview in July 2017. “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the President.”
What Trump has never been willing to do — despite his belief that Sessions’ betrayal is to blame for his current political morass — is fire Sessions. As recently as late May, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN of Trump and Sessions that “there’s no doubt [Trump] has some, some grievances. I don’t know if they’ve aired them out yet, but he’s not going to fire him before this is over, nor do I think he should.”
The “this” in Guiliani’s quote above is the Mueller investigation which, as you know, still isn’t over. But, with Sessions using language like, “while I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations,” it feels like he is goading Trump to get rid of him.
Who blinks first?