When President Trump took his frustrations with Attorney General Jeff Sessions public this week, he put his closest allies in an uncomfortable position: having to take sides between the president and someone who has stood by him and his stalwarts since the beginning, like children amid a bad divorce.
Those close to the administration who know both Trump and Sessions and are usually quick to offer their thoughts were more reluctant to speak up on Thursday, the day after the president told the New York Times he would not have nominated Sessions to be attorney general if he’d known Sessions would recuse himself from the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the presidential election.
Half of the two dozen people in Trump’s orbit BuzzFeed News reached out to for this story did not respond. People close to the White House have known about the president privately fuming about Sessions, but the public criticism put them in a bind. They don't necessarily think Sessions should have recused himself, but they’re also fond of the senator and don’t want Trump to bash him publicly.
And as Sessions’ case puts on display, stepping out on the president can result in swift condemnation from the Oval Office, no matter how much loyalty to Trump you’ve previously shown.
Sessions was the first senator to back Trump’s presidential campaign, and he was a frequent presence on the trail. His loyalty helped him win the job leading the Justice Department once Trump won the presidency, but it is now being openly questioned by the president as he fumes over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which threatens to sidetrack his agenda.
Some Republicans on Thursday cast Sessions — who pulled himself out of involvement in the Russia investigation due to his role in the Trump campaign and meetings he took with Russia’s US ambassador — as a good man who played by the rules and is paying the price for doing so.
An ally of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, the head of one of the administration’s power centers, complained that Sessions has taken overly cautious steps not taken by his predecessors.
“If Loretta Lynch didn’t recuse herself on Clinton, why did he recuse himself on Russia?” the source said, referring to President Obama’s former attorney general’s decisions during the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use. “It’s a kangaroo court, Kafka-esque investigation to take down Trump, but Sessions is the reason it’s going on.”
David Horowitz, a conservative activist who is close to Sessions and other aides in the White House, said he has a "nuanced" way of thinking about Sessions' recusal. Although he doesn't think Sessions should have recused himself, he said he understands why he did it.
"Republicans are too well-mannered and actually try to follow the rules," Horowitz said, also bashing the attorneys general under Obama, Lynch and Eric Holder.
"I think Jeff plays by the book,” he said. “Unfortunately, we're in a situation where Democrats aren't playing by any book."
However, Horowitz said this week’s criticism of Sessions is “one of the things Trump should have kept to himself."
Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, who frequently rails against Sessions’ push to crack down on states that have legalized marijuana, agreed with other Trump allies that Sessions' original sin was the recusal — arguing that there was nothing illegal about Sessions' contacts and communications with Russian officials.
“His recusal is what gave us the self-starter Mr. Rosenstein,” Stone said of the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who Trump also lashed out on to the Times.
Stone called for Sessions to resign, a step the attorney general publicly rejected on Thursday.
“We in this department will continue every single day to work hard to serve the national interest,” Sessions said at a press conference for an unrelated announcement, flanked by Rosenstein. “We love this job. We love this department. I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate.”
Sessions has more willing public defenders in his old coworkers. One-by-one, Republican senators stepped up Thursday to defend the attorney general after Trump’s attack, with one senator arguing that the president being unhappy with Sessions is a testament to his independence as attorney general.
"I think there's an argument for saying that the AG didn't necessarily have to recuse himself,” North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said. “But the fact that he did means he sees where the line is and he's taken a step back, and I think that's healthy."
Senate Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley said he was among those who reached out to Sessions asking him to recuse himself earlier this year.
“I want to remind people of what Holder said one time, that he was a wingman for the president,” Grassley said. “The attorney general can't be a wingman for a president. He's got to be very independent and work for, be a wingman for, the people of the country."
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to straddle the line while reading from a prepared statement at Thursday’s off-camera press briefing, saying that Trump was “disappointed” in Sessions’ decision to recuse himself but that he still had the confidence of the president.
Such a statement, though, doesn’t necessarily mean Sessions’ job is safe. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said something similar about former national security adviser Michael Flynn just hours before he resigned.
Trump’s return to blasting Sessions is a stunning departure from where the two were 18 months ago, as Sessions took the stage in his home state of Alabama, donning a trademark red “Make America Great Again” hat as he endorsed Trump’s then-longshot presidential candidacy.
"When I get Jeff Sessions, that means a lot to me. That means a lot. That's a biggie, especially since he's never done it before,” Trump said at the Feb. 29 event.
While the good times appear to be in the past, some like Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Lou Barletta said the latest, greatest Trump discontent doesn’t register with his constituents who represent the president’s base.
“Everything’s made into such a big deal around here, everything that’s said, and, ‘what did he mean by that? What should he do?’” Barletta said. “Let me tell you, working people in Pennsylvania couldn’t give a hoot about this kind of stuff. I don’t think it matters.”
But the Trump diatribe was also a reminder, as former FBI director James Comey alleged, that Trump expects unquestioned, unrelenting loyalty — or else there will be consequences, even for people who have been with him from the start.
Barletta said that’s not a bad thing, but Sessions might feel differently.
“If you want to surround yourself with people in a foxhole,” he said, “you want to know who you're in a foxhole with."
Lissandra Villa contributed to this report.