Powerful political figures in Washington are coming to the defense of embattled U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, rebuking President Donald Trump for his days of complaints about the country's top law enforcement official.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told NBC News on Thursday there will be "holy hell" to pay if Trump fires Sessions, who was a Senate colleague of Graham's until Trump tapped him as attorney general.
Trump has vented his anger at Sessions, an early supporter of his presidential campaign, for removing himself from oversight of the Justice Department's investigation of Russia's interference in last year's presidential election.
'Beginning of the end'
That in turn led Sessions' deputy to name a special prosecutor, former Federal Bureau of Investigation chief Robert Mueller, to conduct a criminal investigation of possible Trump campaign collusion with Moscow aimed at helping Trump win. The probe has consumed the early months of Trump's White House tenure, even as Trump has branded the investigation a "witch hunt" and an excuse by Democrats to explain his upset victory over his Democratic challenger, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Graham said that "any effort [by Trump] to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency unless Mueller did something wrong. Right now, I have no reason to believe Mueller is compromised."
Graham and two Democrats said they are drafting legislation to insulate Mueller from being fired without judicial review.
On a visit to El Salvador to combat the violent MS-13 street gang, Sessions told The Associated Press that Trump certainly has the right to replace him if he wishes. "I serve at the pleasure of the president," Sessions said. "I've understood that from the day I took the job."
Gingrich offers advice
One Trump supporter, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, told National Public Radio, "I think he should keep Jeff Sessions. And I think he ought to quit publicly maligning him."
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, the Senate minority leader, noted Sessions' political support of Trump when he was an underdog in last year's race for the Republican presidential nomination, the first senator to endorse Trump's candidacy.
"I would say to my fellow Americans, Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, every American should be troubled by the character of a person who humiliates and turns his back on a close friend after only six months," Schumer told the Senate on Wednesday.
"All Americans should be wondering: Why is the president publicly, publicly demeaning and humiliating such a close friend and supporter, a member of his own Cabinet?" Schumer said. "They should wonder if the president is trying to pry open the office of attorney general to appoint someone during the August recess who will fire special counsel Mueller and shut down the Russia investigation. Let me say, if such a situation arises, Democrats would use every tool in our toolbox to stymie such a recess appointment."
Trump for days has lobbed attacks at Sessions, a highly unusual public spat in Washington between a president and a member of his Cabinet. Trump publicly said he is "disappointed" with Sessions, while calling him "VERY weak" and "beleaguered" in Twitter comments.
Associates of Sessions have told the White House he has no intention of quitting his post at the U.S. Justice Department, and so far Trump has not fired him.
Sessions was at the White House on Wednesday for meetings, but did not talk with Trump. He reportedly has not been in direct contact with the president for days.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said even though Trump is "disappointed" in Sessions, the president wants him to continue to run the Justice Department and focus on controlling illegal immigration and investigating leaks of classified government material to journalists.
The Washington Post said that Trump has mused with aides about replacing Sessions when Congress takes its annual recess in August, in order to avoid a protracted Senate confirmation hearing over a new attorney general. The White House called the report "more fake news."