WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Republicans and influential conservatives rallied around Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday as President Donald Trump kept up his public pelting of the nation's top law enforcement officer and left his future in doubt.
Sessions' former colleagues in the Senate denounced the president's broadsides against the first senator to endorse him.
Key forces in the conservative media, including Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart News, sharply criticized Trump's broadsides. And even as Trump again turned to Twitter to rap Sessions, the White House suggested the attorney general should just press ahead with doing his job.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said of Sessions that the president "wants him to lead the department."
"Look, you can be disappointed in someone and still want them to continue to do their job," she said during the daily briefing.
That sent a different signal than the seemingly daily barrage of negative tweets that Trump has aimed at Sessions, fueling speculation that the president is going to fire his attorney general or was pressuring him to quit.
Trump's onslaught continued Wednesday with a tweet wondering why Sessions didn't "replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe," whom the president characterized as a friend of fired former FBI director James Comey and an ally of Hillary Clinton. A day earlier, Trump repeatedly expressed regret over choosing Sessions for the Cabinet position and refused to say whether he'd fire him.
Sessions, who has privately told allies that he does not plan to resign, has not addressed the president's criticism this week. But several Senate Republicans, many of whom had been previously reluctant to break with the president for fear of alienating conservatives loyal to Trump, spoke up on his behalf.
"Sessions is a very loyal man to the president. He stepped in front with him when no senator did," said Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby. "I think loyalty ought to be a two-way street."
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said: "I wish it would stop."
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham framed the president's efforts to pressure Sessions to resign, instead of firing him, as "a sign of weakness." Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who is running to fill Sessions' old Senate seat, suggested all the candidates for the job drop out of the race so Sessions could run again if he chose.
And Maine Sen. Susan Collins agreed with a reporter's question suggesting that if Trump were to fire Sessions, the president's replacement pick might have a hard time being confirmed.
"I think the answer to that question is likely 'yes' but clearly it would depend on the person whom the president appointed," Collins said. "But I hope we do not come to that."
Limbaugh, the influential conservative talk radio host, said this week that "It's also a little bit discomforting, unseemly, for Trump to go after such a loyal supporter this way."
Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council issued a statement in support. And several posts on Breitbart's home page, a space usually dedicated to praising Trump, have been critical of the president's treatment of Sessions, who is given credit for delivering on conservative pledges.
The attorney general visited the White House on Wednesday morning for a routine meeting that did not include the president. Some White House aides and Trump confidants have begun discussing how to move beyond Sessions, while others have urged the president to end the barrage of negative tweets.
Sessions continued carrying out his — and the president's — agenda, saying Wednesday that he was reviewing the recommendations of a task force he assembled in response to Trump's executive order on reducing violent crime. And he is expected to fulfill a Trump wish by announcing next week stepped-up efforts to investigate leaks of sensitive information to the press, an official familiar with the matter said. The official was not authorized to discuss the effort publicly ahead of the formal announcement and did so on condition of anonymity.
The Justice Department moved Wednesday night to align with the White House's leak crackdown, with spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores decrying what she said was an "astonishing increase" in the number of leaks that undermine national security. She reiterated that the department would prosecute leak cases when possible and move to put leakers in prison.
The DOJ statement came moments before new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci tweeted that he was contacting the department over media reports about his financial disclosure information. His tweet included the Twitter handle of White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who has clashed with Scaramucci.
"In light of the leak of my financial disclosure info which is a felony. I will be contacting @FBI and the @TheJusticeDept#swamp @Reince45," Scaramucci tweeted.
McCabe has served as acting FBI director since Trump fired Comey in May. The president has been angry at McCabe for months, particularly after he highlighted the FBI's work in the ongoing Russia probe and praised Comey during an appearance before Congress.
But Trump could have fired McCabe himself at any time from the acting director position. Trump's pick to be the new FBI director, Christopher Wray, had his nomination approved by the Senate's Judiciary Committee last week.
In private, Trump has told confidants that Sessions was disloyal in recusing himself from the federal investigation of Russia's meddling in the presidential election and the possibility of collaboration with the Trump campaign. Sessions himself had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the election as a representative of the Trump campaign and thus stepped aside from the probe.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Erica Werner contributed reporting.
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