WASHINGTON — Jeff Sessions was in his office, looking unusually deflated. He had just received another public lashing from President Donald Trump.
Trump had browbeaten his attorney general for months after Sessions’ decision to step aside from the intensifying Russia investigation. Never mind that Sessions has proved fiercely devoted to his boss, carrying out Trump’s agenda while giving him credit every step of the way. Trump was unforgiving.
This attack came on an autumn day, and Sessions discussed it with a longtime friend and adviser who had stopped by to chat.
Sessions shrugged. “I do the best I can,” he said. Then he got back to work.
And, somewhat surprisingly, he’s still working.
Sessions will soon mark his first year on the job, having survived a barrage of insults from Trump, antipathy from some Justice Department employees and even calls from some fellow Republicans for him to resign. Last week, America’s top law enforcement officer was himself questioned as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible obstruction of justice and Trump campaign ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Trump’s relentless attacks have been a wearing distraction, say friends and associates of the former Alabama senator. The Associated Press interviewed more than a dozen of them, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private interactions.
What keeps him going, friends say, is his Methodist faith, support from his wife and his awareness that, at age 71, leading the Justice Department is his best and perhaps final chance to carry out the policy changes he long has sought.
Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump’s candidacy, declined to be interviewed for this story but did agree to respond to written questions. He did not directly address his personal relationship with Trump but said his first year was marked by progress on a number of Trump’s priorities: fighting crime, combating gangs and helping police.
While Sessions is proud of his first year, friends see signs of stress. At an annual Justice Department Christmas party, one friend noted, the usually upbeat attorney general looked sullen and tired.
“We have talked about some of the difficult times he’s had since he has been attorney general,” said the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, a Sessions’ confidante. “My comment to him was, as long as you’re doing the right thing, I don’t think you have anything to apologize for.”
Critics say Sessions is too loyal, dangerously politicizing his department in an effort to appease Trump. Sessions told senior prosecutors to look into Hillary Clinton’s activities after Trump demanded investigations of his 2016 Democratic rival, and he has been eager to pursue investigations into Trump grievances, such as media leaks. Lawmakers accuse Sessions of stonewalling congressional committees investigating the Trump campaign by repeatedly saying he doesn’t recall key events.
Some say Sessions’ public silence in the face of Trump’s assaults on the department is demoralizing to employees and threatens its independence from the White House.
“It seems he recognizes he is in such a weakened position, if he wants to stay in Trump’s good graces he has to at least make a show of responding to Trump’s demands, and that’s extremely dangerous,” said William Yeomans, who spent nearly 30 years at the department under Democratic and Republican administrations.
Sessions declined to address specific actions by his department but said it carries out “the law without regard to the political consequences or to poll numbers or who benefits and who doesn’t,” and Trump supports that.
Even if Sessions is complying with Trump’s demands and pursuing his agenda, the attorney general has yet to find himself back in favor with the president. Before Sessions’ decision to withdraw from the Russia investigation, Trump used to call Sessions periodically and seek his counsel. Now the two men rarely speak, and Sessions at times has resorted to asking West Wing aides to pass messages to Trump.
The rupture stems from Sessions’ move on March 2 to step aside from that investigation after acknowledging he had had two previously undisclosed encounters with the Russian ambassador in Washington during Trump’s campaign. Sessions said it would be improper for him to oversee an investigation into a campaign in which he played a prominent role.
Trump was furious. Sessions had disregarded a plea from Trump’s White House lawyer, Don McGahn, who, at Trump’s request, had urged the attorney general to retain oversight of the investigation. But by then, Sessions had already consulted with ethics officials and had made up his mind. Sessions’ action left Trump without a close political appointee keeping a hand in the investigation of his campaign,
Sessions offered to resign. Trump declined to accept it. Sacking Sessions would have been politically perilous for the president.
Sessions has endured with a courtly stoicism. If he’s frustrated, friends said, he mostly keeps it to himself.
“He’s not going to sit around and yank the president’s tie in private conversation with a group of his buddies,” said Ken Blackwell, a domestic policy adviser to Trump’s transition team who has known Sessions for years. “He’s more like, this is what we need to get done, how do we get it done?”
Trump’s priorities reflect the interests Sessions long has advocated, first as a federal prosecutor and then as a senator: illegal immigration, violent crime, illegal drugs, defending the rights of those who say they’ve been discriminated against based on religion.
“President Trump knows how to give clear orders, and he told us to reduce crime, take on the gangs and cartels, and back the men and women in blue,” Sessions said. “The good news for us is that these directives are exactly what I want to do.”
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Jonathan Lemire, Mary Clare Jalonick, and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.