President Donald Trump is getting a bitter Washington lesson when he messes with Jeff Sessions – you don't pick a fight with one of the Senate's guys.
It's a lesson that could cost him politically in a Senate where he badly needs Republican support for his lengthy agenda, starting with healthcare on Tuesday.
"I don’t understand it. There’s no more honorable person I’ve ever met in my life than Jeff Sessions,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a close friend of Sessions and his wife. “The only person who is more upset with Trump about this than me, is my wife.”
Sessions spent 20 years in the Senate, winning a reputation for affability and party loyalty. He understood and doggedly practiced the code of what's been called the world's most exclusive club: You can disagree without being disagreeable, but you protect the institution and its members.
Trump, clearly, doesn’t play by those rules.
The president took to Twitter to call Sessions "beleaguered" and question why the attorney general wasn’t investigating Trump’s 2016 Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Clinton. That was Monday, and by Tuesday morning, he doubled down: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) and Intel leakers!” he tweeted.
Trump raised similar questions over the weekend days after telling reporters in an interview that he had second thoughts about nominating Sessions because the former Alabama senator had recused himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Trump is reportedly weighing possible replacements for Sessions, The Washington Post reported late Monday.
“It would not be well received on Capitol Hill,” Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama warned, saying Sessions had been loyal to the president “to a fault.”
“Most people in the U.S. Senate and U.S. Congress believe Jeff Sessions is a man of integrity,” Shelby said on Fox News on Tuesday. His firing, Shelby said, “would not be taken lightly.”
Indeed, such a move would infuriate Republicans, who control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats. Many GOP senators reacted in classic Senate fashion to the treatment of Sessions. They were not visibly angry but clearly annoyed and often upset. And with what could be construed as a few veiled warnings to be careful.
Senate Republicans have become increasingly accustomed to shrugging off questions about Trump tweets and have weathered criticism from the president for their inability to deliver a repeal of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. A vote on whether to proceed to debate on the bill is scheduled Tuesday, and coming up are Trump initiatives on overhauling the tax code, cutting the federal budget, boosting infrastructure spending and more.
Senators made it clear the attack on one of their own stands to color Trump’s relationship with Senate Republicans, said Inhofe, a senator since 1994.
“I’m 100 percent for the president, but I really have a hard time with this,” he said.
“That’s what he does, I don’t think he means harm with those tweets,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said of Trump.
But Hatch added, "I’d prefer that he didn’t do that. We’d like Jeff to be treated fairly."
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, agreed.
”I guess we all have our communication style and that’s one that I would avoid,” Tillis said, adding that the Russia investigation by an outside special counsel should proceed without interruptions: “The fewer distractions we have, the faster the investigation can proceed and the less confusion the electorate has to deal with,” he said.
”Sen. Sessions is showing the independence I expected of him and that’s a healthy thing,” Tillis said.
Even those who said they were nonplussed by Trump’s criticism made it clear they sided with Sessions’ recusal decision.
“Jeff made the right decision. It’s not only a legal decision, but it’s the right decision,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
Sarah Sanders, White House principal deputy press secretary, Monday declined to elaborate on what Trump meant by describing Session as “beleaguered,” only repeating that Trump was “very disappointed” with the attorney’s decision to step away from the Russia investigation.
Sessions was at the White House on Monday, but did not meet with Trump, she said. And unlike his fellow Cabinet members Ryan Zinke and Rick Perry, who like Sessions were Eagle Scouts, Sessions did not accompany Trump Monday night to the National Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia.
The affable Sessions was elected to the Senate in 1996 and has been a favorite among staunch conservatives, where he was a reliable vote against gun control, abortion and the softening of immigration laws. In 2007, he helped derail a sweeping immigration bill sought by his own Republican colleagues.
In a place where going along to get along matters, as deals are cut constantly over legislation big, small and local, Sessions got along.
At his confirmation hearing in January, Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, noted that Sessions, “always a gentleman,” had long treated his colleagues with "thoughtfulness, humility, and more importantly, respect.”
Sessions in 2009 was selected by his peers as the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he challenged Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the U.S. Supreme Court. His committee role carried some irony, since the same committee in 1986 rejected Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship, a rare rebuff by the then-Republican controlled Senate to the Reagan administration. Sessions’ civil rights record was an issue and Democrats sought to revisit it during his January confirmation hearing.
Trump last week expressed regret for nominating Sessions, telling the Times that he would not have done so if he had he known that Sessions was going to recuse himself over contacts he had with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.
Sessions sought to brush off the critique, telling reporters on Thursday that he’d stay as attorney general "as long as that is appropriate."
Sessions is under scrutiny far beyond Trump. The Washington Post reported Friday that intercepted U.S. intelligence reports show Sessions discussed Trump campaign matters with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, contrary to what he has said publicly.
The judiciary committee’s top Democrat on Monday called for Sessions to appear before the panel, saying the reported conversations would be "directly contrary" to Sessions’ testimony at his confirmation hearing.
Sessions wrote a letter to the committee in March saying he didn’t recall any discussions with the Russian ambassador or other Russian government operatives "regarding the political campaign." He has said all his talks were Senate-related.