Trump attacks make conservative Sessions an unlikely champion for president's opponents

Paul HANDLEY
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US President Donald Trump(L) and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions: formerly close allies, the two are now at odds over the Russia collusion investigation

Arch-conservative Attorney General Jeff Sessions has become an unlikely champion of opponents of Donald Trump as the president again hammered him Friday.

Democrats have long expressed disdain for the former Alabama senator as a relic of the racist Old South, an alleged intolerant bigot who wants lengthy prison sentences for petty crimes and seeks to expel all illegal immigrants from the country.

But as a key line of protection for Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's Russia collusion investigation, Sessions' stiff defiance of the president has made him a bulwark against attacks on the Justice Department and the US constitution.

"While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action," he said in a terse statement Thursday.

That came in reaction to Trump's attack in a Fox News interview, alleging that Sessions is weak and "never took control of the Justice Department."

Trump's anger arose from the judgements Justice prosecutors gained on Tuesday against two former senior Trump aides, 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

Those Manafort's conviction and Cohen's guilty plea heightened the sense of the president's own legal jeopardy, and Trump hit back anew on Friday, taunting Sessions to go after the White House's opponents rather than Republican targets.

"'Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.' Jeff, this is GREAT, what everyone wants, so look into all of the corruption on the 'other side,'" Trump wrote.

"Come on Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting!" he added.

- Will he fire Sessions? -

The fracas raised speculation that Trump could fire his hand-picked attorney general in an effort to shut down Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between Trump's 2016 election campaign and Russia.

Trump is believed to be in the cross-hairs of that probe, for possible collusion and obstruction of justice, and risks impeachment in Congress.

Ironically, Sessions has been crucial to Trump's political success. The diminutive, soft-spoken Alabaman was brought to Trump in 2015 by right-wing strategist Steve Bannon.

The two shared a "nativist" vision of a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration and restricting legal immigration to people who "fit in" to US society -- which critics say means Caucasians with Christian European roots.

In February 2016, Sessions was the first senator to endorse the outsider candidate. After the campaign Trump quickly announced he would be attorney general.

On January 27, 2016, barely a week into Trump's presidency, Sessions took on the responsibility to implement Trump's promise to shut down US borders, helping to craft the controversial "Muslim ban" immigration restrictions.

Sessions has also translated into policy Trump's attacks on Latino gangs and drug dealers, with both talking about meting out capital punishment to traffickers.

- Recusal from Russia probe-

But Trump is furious that Sessions unexpectedly recused himself in March 2017 from the Russia investigation, leaving control of Mueller to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

That has made it nearly impossible for Sessions to obey Trump's demands to "stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now," as Trump tweeted on August 1.

The best hope Trump has then is to install a new attorney general who can then remove Rosenstein and Mueller.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that could be coming.

"Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn't have the confidence of the President," Graham told reporters Wednesday,

"That's an important office in the country and after the (November) election, I think there will be some serious discussions about a new attorney general."

But Republican Senator Ben Sasse countered with a warning:

"It would be a very, very, very bad idea to fire the attorney general because he's not executing his job as a political hack," Sasse said Thursday.

"That is not the job of the attorney general. The attorney general's job is to be faithful to the Constitution and to the rule of law."

Democratic politicians have repeatedly warned that firing Sessions to go after Mueller would lead to impeachment.

Graham, though, says Sessions' departure and Mueller's position are separate.

"Mueller is down the road," he told reporters Thursday. "To those who believe that the only way that you can protect Mueller is to keep Jeff Sessions as attorney general forever, I don't buy it."

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