WASHINGTON — Sensing that Jeff Sessions’ days at the Justice Department may be numbered, some of his supporters want the White House to allow for a graceful exit for an attorney general they believe has dutifully carried out the administration’s agenda even while enduring the president’s fury.
It seems unlikely that efforts to soften a possible dismissal after the Nov. 6 midterm election would find sympathy in the White House, where President Donald Trump’s rage remains unabated over the attorney general’s recusal from the Russia investigation. A hand-picked successor could theoretically oversee the rest of the probe in place of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
But some supporters say they hope that if and when Sessions is replaced, his record as senator and attorney general will be recognized and not overwhelmed by Trump’s attacks, or that the administration will at least respect the Justice Department by guaranteeing a smooth transition.
A scenario advocated by at least one Sessions ally, former Cincinnati Mayor Ken Blackwell, would allow him to remain on the job until January and be permitted to resign on his own then rather than be fired immediately after the midterms. Blackwell said allies have made their case to administration officials that Sessions has successfully pushed the president’s core priorities, including on illegal immigration, and deserves some sort of recognition from the White House that “he has more than a passing grade.”
“It is not unknown, from anyone from John Kelly to Jared Kushner, that there is a base of support,” said Blackwell, referring to Trump’s chief of staff and son-in-law. “A portion of that base is ready to continue advocacy for his service.”
Newt Gingrich, a former Republican House speaker who is close to the White House and calls himself a longtime “admirer” of Sessions, said he would be open to serving as an intermediary if asked between the White House and Sessions supporters.
“He deserves a graceful exit. His career deserves a strong conclusion,” said Gingrich, who called Sessions “a strong conservative who has done strong work at the Department of Justice.”
Sessions, who has publicly acknowledged the president’s displeasure, has plowed forward with the conventional duties of the job, including a regular calendar of events and announcements. On Friday, he spoke first at the Justice Department news conference announcing the arrest of a mail-bomb suspect in Florida.
The president, though mindful that Sessions remains popular among much of his base, would seem unlikely to sign off on a plan to extend Sessions’ time in office, according to a White House official and an outside adviser familiar with Trump’s thinking but not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations. Trump has repeatedly had to be talked out of firing Sessions before November and has signaled to allies that he wants to make sweeping changes at the Justice Department once the midterms have concluded.
He told The Associated Press this month that he was “not thrilled” with Sessions but made no commitment to dismiss him.
If Trump were to wait, it would not be out of deference to Sessions, but rather because the White House would be managing the fallout from the midterms and preparing for a pair of presidential overseas trips in November, according to the official.
Sessions’ decision to recuse remains his original sin in Trump’s eyes. Trump has fumed that Sessions has not done more to protect his personal interests and has vented about what he sees as Sessions’ failure to get a handle on immigration and his lack of emphasis on combating transnational criminal organizations.
Cameron Smith, a former Sessions Senate aide, said, “The idea that this gets better — they stand next to each other and sing common praises — I just don’t see anybody looking at that seriously.”
After being berated by Trump over the recusal decision last year, Sessions offered his resignation, but it was rejected. He has been widely viewed as determined to stay in the job because he believes in Trump’s agenda, which largely mirrors his own interests, and reluctant to leave a job for which he gave up a Senate seat.
For more than a year, Trump has repeatedly polled advisers as to whether he should fire Sessions. Some of his closest aides, including attorney Rudy Giuliani, have counseled him not to do so, at least not yet.
The case that Sessions’ protectors outlined to Trump largely consists of three components:
— Firing Sessions, a witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of obstruction of justice, would add legal peril to his standing in the Russia probe.
— Doing so would anger the president’s political base, which Trump cares deeply about, especially before the midterms.
— A number of Republican senators would rebel against the treatment of a longtime colleague and potentially not hold confirmation hearings for a replacement if the GOP holds onto the Senate.
Blackwell, the Sessions friend, said conservatives are divided between those who support firing him immediately and those who regard him as loyal to their cause, protective of their ideals and propelling Trump’s agenda. Gingrich, for instance, calls the recusal “inexcusable” even as he professes admiration for Sessions.
The ground appears to have softened recently after some influential Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, suggested Trump would have the right, after the elections, to select a replacement he trusted.
Smith said one way Trump could enable a respectful exit would be for the White House to craft a smooth succession plan and allow Sessions to be part of the process.
Ed Meese, a Reagan administration attorney general and Sessions friend, said he wasn’t thinking about Sessions’ departure because “I don’t want to see him fired at all.”
“I think he’s taken it with grace,” Meese said of Sessions’ response to Trump’s anger. “What he is recused from is less than 1 percent of the department and he has done an outstanding job in everything he’s done in the department.”