Why Trump Probably Hasn't Spooked the Justice Department

Andrew Harnik/AP

President Trump’s extraordinary broadside this week against Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Special Counsel Robert Mueller raised eyebrows across the nation’s capital. But it’s unclear whether it will affect how either man performs his day-to-day job.

The president expressed frustration with both men, as well as with other top federal law-enforcement officials, in an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday. Trump reserved his greatest ire for Sessions’s decision to step aside from the Russia investigation in March following controversy over his interactions with that country’s ambassador. “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” he said. 

Yet at the Justice Department on Thursday morning, it was business as usual. Sessions opened his day with a previously scheduled announcement on a major multinational investigation into dark-web drug trafficking, which culminated in the closures of AlphaBay and Hansa Market, two of the largest online marketplaces for illicit goods and services. Flanked by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and other top federal officials, Sessions praised the investigation as “one of the most important criminal cases of the year.”

Predictably, when he called for questions, reporters only asked about the president’s Times interview the day before. But the attorney general betrayed little emotion about what his boss had to say: “I have the honor of serving as attorney general,” Sessions replied. “It is something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself. We love this job. We love this department. And I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate.”

It’s not clear what Sessions considers “appropriate,” but it’s unlikely he’d feel the need to resign solely because of veiled threats to his job. For one, the president reportedly declined Sessions’s offer to do so in the late spring, suggesting that Trump’s fulminations might be more smoke than fire. (Trump himself effectively confirmed past anonymous reporting by admitting he’s upset with Sessions.) With the president’s hands-off approach to governing, Sessions also enjoys relatively free reign as a Cabinet member, with broad authority to imprint his ideological views upon the American legal system. It’s unlikely he’ll give up that power after a hostile Times interview.

There’s no evidence, either, that Mueller has altered course after repeated criticisms from the president. He has kept quiet since his appointment as special counsel in May, when he was put in charge of the sprawling federal inquiry into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. That silence would ostensibly appeal to a president critical of leaks, yet it did not dissuade Trump from describing the limits of his tolerance for Mueller’s investigation. In the Timesinterview, he confirmed he has a “red line” when it comes to non-Russia-related aspects of his family business.

“If Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, unrelated to Russia—is that a red line?” asked reporter Michael Schmidt. “Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?” added reporter Maggie Haberman.

“I would say yeah,” Trump replied. “I would say yes.” He then went on to explain it was possible Russian individuals may have purchased condos at some of his properties, but told the Times reporters that, aside from a 2013 Miss Universe pageant held there, “I don’t make money from Russia.”

Trump’s answers on Mueller came one month after the president reportedly considered ousting him. He has also strongly condemned Mueller’s investigation in recent months, describing it as a politically motivated “witch hunt” concocted by Democrats to undermine the legitimacy of his upset victory in the presidential election. While his advisers eventually reportedly convinced Trump not to dismiss Mueller, the episode raised fears on Capitol Hill that the president could eventually trigger a crisis reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre during Watergate.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to downplay the president’s remarks from the interview during Thursday’s press briefing. The Trump administration no longer regularly holds televised briefings, but journalists there said Sanders told them Trump “has confidence” in Sessions as attorney general. She additionally argued that while Trump has the authority to fire Mueller, the president “doesn’t intend to do so.”

Mueller hasn’t publicly described the full scope of his investigation, but in a letter appointing him as special counsel, Rosenstein authorized the former FBI director to go broad. He can pursue not only the Russia investigation, but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” On Thursday morning, Bloomberg reported that Mueller’s team “is examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses, as well as those of his associates.” The outlet cited “a person familiar with the probe” as its source, and hinted that the story’s timing was connected to the Times interview.

Bloomberg also reported that the probe’s interests included a series of Russia-related real-estate deals, Trump’s involvement with the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, and any possible ties with the Bank of Cyprus. The outlet reported that the investigation began as part of a probe undertaken by Preet Bharara, the former federal prosecutor in Manhattan, before Mueller took command of it. Trump dismissed Bharara and more than two dozen other U.S. attorneys in March.

It’s unclear whether Mueller’s reported activity could be seen as crossing Trump’s red line. When asked specifically if he would fire the special counsel for looking into matters Trump might consider to be beyond “certain parameters,” the president demurred. “I can’t answer that question because I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he replied. Until then, it seems, Mueller’s work goes on.

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