By the time Attorney-General Jeff Sessions arrived at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort for dinner one Saturday evening in March 2017, he had been receiving the presidential silent treatment for two days. Sessions had flown to Florida because Trump was refusing to take his calls about a pressing decision on his travel ban.
When they met, Trump was ready to talk – but not about the travel ban. His grievance was with Sessions: The president objected to his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Trump, who had told aides that he needed a loyalist overseeing the inquiry, berated Sessions and told him he should reverse his decision, an unusual and potentially inappropriate request.
The confrontation, which has not been previously reported, is being investigated by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, as are the president’s public and private attacks on Sessions and efforts to get him to resign. Trump dwelled on the recusal for months, according to confidants and current and former administration officials who described his behaviour toward the attorney-general.
The special counsel’s interest demonstrates Sessions’ overlooked role as a key witness in the investigation into whether Trump tried to obstruct the inquiry itself. It also suggests that the obstruction investigation is broader than it is widely understood to be – encompassing not only the president’s interactions with and firing of the former FBI director, James Comey, but also his relationship with Sessions.
Investigators have pressed current and former White House officials about Trump’s treatment of Sessions and whether they believe the president was trying to impede the Russia investigation by pressuring him. The attorney-general was also interviewed at length by Mueller’s investigators in January. And of the four dozen or so questions Mueller wants to ask Trump, eight relate to Sessions. Among them: What efforts did you make to try to get him to reverse his recusal?
The president’s lead lawyer in the case, Rudy Giuliani, said that if Trump agreed to answer the special counsel’s questions – an interview is the subject of continuing negotiations – he should not be forced to discuss his private deliberations with senior administration officials. Talking about the attorney-general, Giuliani argued, would set a bad precedent for future presidents.
Giuliani said he had not discussed Sessions’ recusal with Trump but said that a request that Sessions reassert control over the Russia investigation would be within the bounds of the president’s authority.
“’Unrecuse’ doesn’t say, ‘Bury the investigation.’ It says on the face of it: Take responsibility for it and handle it correctly,” Giuliani said Tuesday evening.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
To the president, no decision has proved more devastating during his time in office than Sessions’ recusal. In Trump’s view, Sessions, who had been one of his closest political allies and earliest prominent supporters in Washington, never would have appointed a special counsel, as the deputy attorney-general, Rod J. Rosenstein, did last May after the president abruptly fired Comey.
Before the recusal, the president and his attorney-general were friends, often sharing meals and talking on the phone. Today, they rarely speak outside of Cabinet meetings, current and former White House officials and others briefed on their relationship said. They even flew separately in March from Washington to the same event in New Hampshire. Trump complains to friends about how much he would like to get rid of Sessions but has demurred under pressure from Senate Republicans who have indicated they would not confirm a new attorney-general.
Because of his recusal, Sessions has been mostly absent from the president’s ire toward the investigation and the Justice Department. He has enforced Trump’s agenda more successfully than perhaps any Cabinet member, imposing conservative policies on immigration and violent crime that are popular with Trump’s core supporters.
Pressure on Sessions to step aside from the Russia investigation began building almost as soon as he took office, culminating in a Washington Post report on March 1 that he had not been forthcoming during his Senate confirmation hearing about his contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. Career lawyers at the Justice Department had advised Sessions to step aside, citing ethics guidelines about impartiality and his role as a prominent supporter of the Trump campaign.
Trump immediately recognized the potential effect of a recusal. He had his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, lobby Sessions to retain oversight of the inquiry.
To Justice Department officials close to Sessions, the request by the president made through McGahn was inappropriate, particularly because it was clear to them that Sessions had to step aside. After Sessions told McGahn that he would follow the Justice Department lawyers’ advice to recuse himself from all matters related to the election, McGahn backed down. Sessions recused himself on March 2.
When Trump learned of the recusal, he asked advisers whether the decision could be reversed, according to people briefed on the matter. Told no, Trump argued that Eric Holder, President Barack Obama’s first attorney-general, would never have recused himself from a case that threatened to tarnish Obama. The president said he expected the same loyalty from Sessions.
Some people close to the president have said privately that they believed the recusal was overly broad and done too hastily in the middle of public scrutiny over Sessions’ congressional testimony.
The day after the recusal, as the president prepared to travel to Florida, Trump was seen through the windows of the Oval Office by news cameras, gesticulating angrily as he argued with top advisers who had gathered to determine how to go forward with the travel ban, which had been blocked by a federal judge. Justice Department officials had concluded the policy must be withdrawn and revised, a move that Trump was resisting because he thought it was watered down.
But, preoccupied with Sessions’ decision and determined to find a way forward, he spent the first 10 minutes of the meeting venting about it, a former White House official said.
The meeting ended without a resolution about the travel ban. And after Trump flew to Florida, his advisers decided that the only way to get the president’s sign-off to revise the immigration order – a time-sensitive matter because of pending litigation – would be to dispatch the attorney-general to Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida, retreat, to implore him in person, the current and former administration officials said.
It was at Mar-a-Lago the next evening that Trump brought up the Russia investigation with Sessions and asked him to change his mind about stepping aside, the people said.
Prosecutors rarely go back on recusals. Legal experts said that occasionally, prosecutors who handed off a case to colleagues over concerns about a possible financial conflict of interest would take the decision back after confirming none existed. But the experts said they could think of no instance in which a prosecutor stepped aside from a case in circumstances similar to Sessions’. Justice Department guidelines on recusal are in place to prevent the sort of political meddling the president tried to engage in, they said.
“It’s yet more behaviour that tramples on the line between law and politics,” said Samuel W. Buell, a law professor at Duke University and former federal prosecutor.
As the months wore on, Trump returned again and again to the recusal.
In July, he told The New York Times that he never would have nominated Sessions if he had known that Sessions would not oversee the Russia investigation. Two days later, a Washington Post report about Sessions’ campaign discussions with Russia’s ambassador sent Trump into another rage. Aboard Marine One that Saturday, the president told his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, to get Sessions to resign by the end of the weekend, according to a person briefed on the conversation.
Unnerved and convinced the president wanted to install a new attorney-general who could oversee the Russia investigation, Priebus called Sessions’ chief of staff at the time, Jody Hunt, who said that the president would have to ask Sessions himself to resign. Unsure how to proceed, Priebus simply waited out the president, who never called Sessions but did attack him that week on Twitter.
Days later, Priebus was out as chief of staff. The special counsel has told the president’s lawyers that he wants to ask Trump about those discussions with Priebus and why he publicly criticized Sessions.
Trump brought up the recusal again with associates later last year, expressing a desire for Sessions to reassert control over an investigation that has since resulted in the indictment of his former campaign chairman and guilty pleas by two other campaign aides and his former national security adviser.