Senate Republicans and conservative activists quickly and loudly came to the defense of Jeff Sessions on Tuesday, even as President Donald Trump continued to flirt with the idea of firing – or pushing out – the attorney general.
”He’s a man of purpose and integrity,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who said he spoke Tuesday morning with Sessions, who for 20 years was Shelby’s Senate colleague from Alabama.
“I tell you what, he’d be hard to replace, he’s got a lot of goodwill on Capitol Hill,” Shelby said.
Trump has gone after Sessions on Twitter since Saturday, calling him “beleaguered” and “weak.” Tuesday, he bashed his attorney general at an afternoon press conference, saying he was “very disappointed” with him for recusing himself from the Russia investigation that is bedeviling Trump’s young administration.
“And if he was going to recuse himself, he should've told me prior to taking office and I would've, quite simply, picked somebody else,” Trump said.
“I think that's a bad thing not for the president, but for the presidency,” the president added. He said he also wanted Sessions “to be much tougher on the leaks from intelligence agencies.”
Asked whether Sessions will last in office, Trump said, “We will see what happens. Time will tell. Time will tell.”
At the same time, conservative media and Sessions’ former Senate colleagues were sending a unified message to quit ridiculing their friend.
Conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin said it would be a “terrible mistake” for Trump to push Sessions out, noting he’s been “highly regarded” in conservative circles for 30 years.
“I understand (Trump’s) upset that Sessions recused himself, but he will not get a better attorney general than Jeff Sessions,” Levin said.
Already, Republicans are hearing names floated as alternatives to Sessions, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
But GOP senators refused to even entertain the suggestion of a replacement, instead presenting a united case for their old friend. Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats. Since the Senate would have to confirm any attorney general nominee, GOP support for any replacement is crucial.
Asked about the possibilities of Giuliani or others as an alternative, Shelby responded, “Sessions is a good honorable man and loyal man.”
Cruz, who called reports of his consideration for the position "false," said he would remain in the Senate and with no hesitation jumped to Sessions’ defense.
"Jeff Sessions is a friend and a strong conservative," Cruz said. "I was proud to vote to confirm Jeff and to vigorously defend his confirmation, and I'm deeply gratified that we have a principled conservative like Jeff Sessions serving as Attorney General."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., set the tone early Tuesday, calling Sessions a “rock-solid conservative” who “above all else” believes in the rule of law. Trump’s beef with Sessions is that he decided to recuse himself from any investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election after disclosures that he met with then-Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, during the campaign.
Graham also chided Trump for suggesting via Twitter on Tuesday that Sessions is “very weak” for not opening an investigation into Trump’s 2016 Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Clinton.
Graham’s South Carolina colleague also expressed irritation with Trump’s repeated pillorying of Sessions, the first senator to embrace Trump’s campaign.
"It is very difficult to engender support among your team when you trounce upon the most loyal and dedicated of your supporters," said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the Senate’s only black Republican. Scott endured sharp criticism in January for backing Sessions. The attorney general has been reluctant to support many civil rights measures.
Scott called the suggestion of alternatives to Sessions “problematic. Ultimately, we have someone who is doing the job with integrity and who is making good decisions on behalf of the country.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, whose panel vetted Sessions, said he suggested to his onetime colleague that he recuse himself. Grassley told Fox News that he stood by the decision and hoped Sessions does not leave office.
“The attorney general should never be a wingman to the president,” Grassley said. “The attorney general works for the American people. And only the American people."
Trump wants a cozier relationship, White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, pointing to president John F. Kennedy’s relationship with his brother, Robert, and President Barack Obama’s relationship with Eric Holder. Holder and Robert Kennedy served as attorneys general.
Trump and Sessions “probably don’t have that sort of relationship,” Scaramucci said. “And I think the president, when he thinks about the architecture of his cabinet, I think he needs that sort of a relationship there.”
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.