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Trump Sessions relationship takes new turn with special counsel decision

Issued: 2018-03-31

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump advisers urging tougher action toward Russia: report Eric Holder says he'll decide on a 2020 run by early next year Trump wrote back to 8-year-old seeking kidney for dad MORE and Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsFBI report used in McCabe firing shows discrepancy with public statements: CNN Eric Holder says he'll decide on a 2020 run by early next year Conservatives fume after Sessions declines to appoint new special counsel MORE have a new complication in their historically contentious relationship: The decision by Sessions not to appoint a second special counsel to investigate conservative allegations of abuse at the Justice Department.

Sessions on Thursday notified key lawmakers on Capitol Hill that he has tapped Utah’s top prosecutor, John Huber, to coordinate with the department’s inspector general—but he stopped short of ceding to demands for a new special counsel, at least for now.

The announcement was a disappointment to some Trump allies in Congress who have clamored for the appointment.

“I disagree with the attorney general,” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsConservatives fume after Sessions declines to appoint new special counsel Conservative lawmakers keep up calls for second special counsel GOP ponders how to fill rest of 2018 MORE (R-N.C.), a lawmaker who frequently talks to Trump. “The Justice Department is not complying with the subpoena and oversight responsibility we have in Congress, so for the attorney general to say there’s not enough there is extremely disappointing.”

The White House itself did not comment on the Sessions decision, however, nor did Trump.

And key lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have formally requested a second special counsel—like House Judiciary chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteConservatives fume after Sessions declines to appoint new special counsel Conservative lawmakers keep up calls for second special counsel GOP chairmen: Sessions move to probe alleged FISA abuse 'a step in the right direction' MORE (R-Va.) and Oversight chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyConservatives fume after Sessions declines to appoint new special counsel The Hill's 12:30 Report Conservative lawmakers keep up calls for second special counsel MORE (R-S.C.)—instead chose to focus on the appointment of Huber, calling the move “encouraging.”

Still, the news will do little to dim speculation that Trump may fire the attorney general, whom he has publicly mocked, criticized and pressured over his handling of the department. Trump was enraged by Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation last spring, an act he saw as a betrayal, and Washington has been on watch for the attorney general’s dismissal for a year.

Trump has berated Sessions for giving responsibility for investigation into the myriad allegations to the Justice Department inspector general, calling it “disgraceful” in a recent tweet.

“No matter what happens, Trump is furious at Sessions” over his recusal, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist and political analyst. “And Trump will not be satisfied until a second special counsel is convened.”

The decision also comes as Sessions is featured on the cover of Time Magazine — an honor that sat uneasily with the president when previously bestowed on staff members.

Sessions’ lengthy explanation to lawmakers leaves open the option that Huber could still recommend the appointment of a special counsel—and it carefully gives conservative lawmakers some of what they say they want.

The decision to tap Huber to coordinate with the department’s inspector general appeases Republican demands for an investigator who has the authority to prosecute people.

“While we continue to believe the appointment of a second Special Counsel is necessary, this is a step in the right direction,” Gowdy and Goodlatte said in a joint statement on Thursday.

Sessions also emphasized the authority of the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, to “collect evidence through subpoena, and develop cases for presentation to the Attorney General...for prosecution”—other complaints Republicans had raised about relying solely on Horowitz.

“I think it’s actually another in a series of examples of Sessions walking a pretty fine tightrope and at least, thus far, navigating it successfully,” said Stephen Vladeck, a national security law professor at the University of Texas.

In the Time interview, Sessions sent the signal that he is working for Trump.

“I want to do what the President wants me to do,” he told Time. “But I do feel like we’re advancing the agenda that he believes in. And what’s good for me is it’s what I believe in too.”

The former Alabama senator, an early supporter of the president during his campaign, has been successful in carrying out Trump initiatives beyond the handling of the Russia investigation.

“I think the administration is, overall, happy with Jeff Sessions, particularly with illegal immigration, sanctuary cities,” said O’Connell.

And Sessions did earn praise from Trump earlier this month for dismissing FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeFBI report used in McCabe firing shows discrepancy with public statements: CNN Conservatives fume after Sessions declines to appoint new special counsel McCabe legal defense fund raises nearly 0K in less than a day MORE — a day before he would have won his pension.

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