WASHINGTON - U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushed back at President Donald Trump on Wednesday after Trump said it was "disgraceful" that Sessions had called for an internal investigation of how officials sought approval for clandestine surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide.
In a rare public dispute between a U.S. president and one of the Cabinet members he had appointed, Sessions said his naming of an investigative watchdog, the inspector general at the Department of Justice, was "the appropriate process" to determine whether the FBI abused normal practices in securing approval from a surveillance court to monitor former Trump aide Carter Page.
"As long as I am the attorney general," Sessions said, "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."
Trump has seethed at Sessions, but not moved to fire him, ever since Sessions last year removed himself from oversight of the agency's investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election because of his own contacts with Russia's then-ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, in the midst of the campaign. Sessions' recusal from the case led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, whose criminal investigation of Trump campaign links to Russia has for months clouded his presidency.
But until Wednesday, Sessions had largely kept quiet when Trump leveled criticism at him, at one point calling him "beleaguered."
The U.S. leader berated Sessions for asking Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz to "investigate potentially massive ... abuse" in surveillance applications to the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Trump, a Republican, claimed an inspector general's investigation "will take forever," and noted that Horowitz "has no prosecutorial power" and was appointed by former President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Trump said Horowitz was "already late" with finishing a report on alleged misconduct by former FBI Director James Comey in his handling of a 2016 investigation into the email practices of Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump's 2016 opponent.
"Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!" Trump said in a Twitter comment.
Trump's attack came after Sessions on Tuesday said that Horowitz's office would probe FBI agents' actions in securing court approval for surveillance of Page and his links to Russia. The surveillance of Page was part of the long-running criminal investigation into alleged Trump campaign ties to Russia during his winning 2016 bid for the White House.
The surveillance of Page has generated weeks of controversy in Washington. The majority Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, led by California Congressman Devin Nunes, have claimed that Federal Bureau of Investigation agents relied essentially on a controversial dossier crafted by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, about Trump's links to Russia to win approval from the surveillance court to monitor Page.
Rival Democrats, led by the committee's top Democrat, California Congressman Adam Schiff, last weekend released a rebuttal. They said that other evidence besides the Steele dossier was submitted to the court in support of the Page surveillance and that the investigation of him was started seven weeks before investigators even learned of the dossier's existence.
Sessions, formerly a senator from the southern state of Alabama, was the most prominent political figure to endorse Trump's candidacy in the early stages of the 2016 contest. But Trump has since said he would never have appointed Sessions as attorney general if he knew he would recuse himself from oversight of the Russia probe.
Oversight of the investigation then fell to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who named Mueller, another former FBI director, to lead the Russia probe shortly after Trump fired Comey last May. Mueller has already secured guilty pleas from two former Trump aides for lying to investigators about their contacts with Russia.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Mueller is investigating that period when Trump seemed determined to push sessions to resign. According to the Post, citing unnamed sources, the special counsel is looking into whether Trump's private remarks and public tweets at that time were an attempt to drive Sessions out and were part of a pattern of obstruction of justice.
Commenting on the latest Trump attack on Sessions, Bradley Moss, deputy executive director of the James Madison Project, told VOA that if Mueller is "truly investigating the president for potential obstruction of justice, these types of inflammatory remarks could collectively serve as circumstantial evidence of the president's corrupt intent. Needless to say, it is unlikely the president's lawyers would want him tweeting these types of things if they had any control over what he said."
VOA White House correspondent Steve Herman contributed to this report.