Jeff Sessions said he plans to continue serving as attorney general "as long as that is appropriate" – despite President Trump's extraordinary attacks that sparked speculation about his fate and that of Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation.
"We love this job. We love this department," Sessions told reporters Thursday.
Slamming Sessions once again for recusing himself from the investigation into Russia's interference the presidential election, Trump told The New York Times Wednesday that he would not have nominated him for attorney general had he known Sessions would do that. “If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” Trump said.
The president's comments about a sitting attorney general – who was also one of his biggest supporters during the campaign – were striking. Trump "effectively asked Sessions for his resignation. Will he resign or insist on being fired?" tweeted Preet Bharara, the former New York-based U.S. Attorney removed this year by the Trump administration.
The President today effectively asked Sessions for his resignation. Will he resign or insist on being fired? https://t.co/bShMQJtrBI— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) July 20, 2017
Sessions said in March he would remove himself from the investigation because he had meetings with Russians officials during the campaign period. The decision took Trump by surprise. Angry, Trump has in the months since complained that Sessions' recusal led to the appointment of special counsel Mueller.
In the Times interview, the president claimed that Mueller's office has conflicts of interest. He did not specify what those would be. He also complained that Mueller interviewed for the job of FBI director and therefore should not have accepted the post of special counsel, and he should not be investigating anything to do with the president's finances.
"I have done nothing wrong," Trump said. "A special counsel should never have been appointed in this case."
Yet Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Cal., top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump is trying to intimidate law enforcement.
FBI Director does not report to the President on specific cases. Someone needs to counsel Mr. Trump on independence of Justice Department.— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) July 20, 2017
Mueller, Schiff added, "has authority to investigate any ties Trump family has to Russia, including financial, and anything that arises. That is his duty."
Trump cannot fire Mueller directly. Only Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller, has the authority to do so – and he said last month he sees no good reason to do so.
Yet the interview renewed questions about whether Trump wants Sessions to quit – and a new attorney general to do something about Mueller.
Matthew Miller, a former spokesman for President Obama's Justice Department, noted that Trump stepped up his attacks after recent revelations that Mueller's office is now investigating Donald Trump Jr.'s 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer in the belief she had compromising information on Trump election opponent Hilary Clinton.
"Every time the investigation gets close to him, he reacts," Miller said. "And as it gets closer and closer, it’s hard to see how we avoid a major crisis – whether that’s him forcing a confrontation with DOJ by trying to fire Mueller or issuing preemptive pardons to everyone involved."
As Miller put it: "Winter is coming."
Mueller is investigating Russian efforts to interfere in last year's election by hacking Democrats close to presidential nominee and possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia. Trump's reactions to the investigation are also under scrutiny, including his May dismissal of FBI Director James Comey.
Along with accounts Trump may have pressed Comey to drop the inquiry into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Comey's abrupt firing prompted calls of possible obstruction of justice.
Sessions, who in recent months has offered the president his resignation, declined to comment in detail on he Times interview.
Sessions basically refused to answer questions about whether Trump's attacks compromises his authority as attorney general.
After a news conference announcing the seizure of assets from an Internet operation selling illegal drugs, Sessions said that "we are serving right now," and remains "totally confident we are able to run this office in an effective way."
Since recusing himself from the Russia matter, Sessions has been largely traveling the country, railing about violent crime and gangs.
Two weeks ago, he was in Guantanamo to inspect the facilities there, which the Trump administration vows to keep open after Obama's efforts to shutter it failed.
Some lawmakers backed Trump's comments on Sessions.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., tweeted: "I agree with @realDonaldTrump, his Attorney General should not have recused himself over reported incidental contacts with Russian officials."
I agree with @realDonaldTrump, his Attorney General should not have recused himself over reported incidental contacts with Russian officials— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) July 20, 2017
Yet other key lawmakers, such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said turning on Sessions proves Trump is willing to throw even key supporters under the bus.