WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump renewed his verbal attacks on his attorney general Wednesday, describing as “disgraceful” his handling of Republican complaints that the FBI abused its surveillance power during the early stages of the Russia investigation.
Jeff Sessions, who rarely responds publicly to criticism from his boss, didn’t keep quiet this time and said the Justice Department he leads had acted appropriately.
“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,” Sessions said.
Sessions on Tuesday suggested that the department’s internal watchdog will evaluate whether prosecutors and agents wrongly obtained a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor the communications of a onetime Trump campaign associate. Sessions referred the allegations to the inspector general in response to pressure from congressional Republicans who, like Trump, have fumed about what they believe to be bias within the FBI.
The office has acknowledged receiving Sessions’ request but hasn’t said it’s investigating.
But that step by Sessions apparently was not enough to satisfy Trump, who has spent the past year berating the former Alabama senator who was the first member of the Senate to endorse Trump’s White House candidacy.
“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!”
Trump is angry that Sessions referred the allegations of Justice Department employee misconduct to the inspector general, but that’s exactly what that office is charged with doing. Its lawyers are part of the department and, contrary to Trump’s claims, can and often do refer matters for prosecution.
The office has been working on a separate review of the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation under former Director James Comey, but that report is not late and is expected to be released around March or April.
It was the latest of Trump’s verbal volleys aimed at Sessions, who continues to faithfully execute Trump’s agenda. A day earlier, for example, Sessions said his department was working toward banning rapid-fire “bump stock” devices at Trump’s urging, even though the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had previously said it was powerless to do so without action from Congress.
Sessions until now has been largely silent in the face of Trump’s taunts. Critics say that strains department morale and makes Sessions seem eager to appease the president, at the risk of dangerously politicizing the department. A spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday.
The two bonded early in Trump’s campaign over their shared priorities of fighting urban crime and illegal immigration.
But their relationship was strained by Sessions’ decision to step aside from the Russia investigation after facing questions about his own contacts during the 2016 campaign with Moscow’s ambassador to the United States. Trump blames that move for the eventual appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to oversee the sprawling investigation. Sessions has become a scapegoat for Trump’s anger. Trump has refrained from directly challenging the special counsel.
The criticism was so harsh that Sessions offered last year to resign; Trump refused. Trump has since been relentlessly pressuring Sessions to investigate political rivals.
Trump and Republicans also have encouraged Sessions to look further into the surveillance abuse allegations. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested Tuesday that Trump would be pleased with Sessions’ referral to the inspector general.
“It’s something that he’s clearly had frustration over so I would imagine he certainly support the decision to look into what we feel to be some wrongdoing,” she said. “I think that’s the role of the Department of Justice and we’re glad that they’re fulfilling that job.”