President Trump could fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at any moment. Or he could not.
Amid all of the uncertainty — and warning shots from the president — officials and career attorneys are keeping their heads down. BuzzFeed News spoke with several current and former attorneys who described a tense environment even as lawyers carry out the day-to-day work of the Justice Department.
“I would say the mood is one of sober resignation,” a current Justice Department attorney, who has served over the past two decades, told BuzzFeed News in a written message. “I'm not hearing anyone complain about the criticism of Sessions himself (who commands little respect), but Trump's attitude that the AG, and by extension the Department as a whole, exists solely to defend him is deeply concerning. The same goes for his inexplicable chumminess with Putin.”
In an interview with the New York Times published on Wednesday night, Trump blasted Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election — Sessions, an early Trump supporter and adviser, recused himself from any matters related to the election — saying that he wouldn’t have chosen Sessions for attorney general if he'd known that’s what Sessions would do. Trump also reiterated his dismay with Rosenstein for appointing a special counsel to lead the Russia investigation: former FBI director Robert Mueller.
The uncertainty about Sessions' and Rosenstein’s future at the Justice Department is underscored by the fact that they are two of only three DOJ officials confirmed so far under Trump. The third is Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, who so far has been largely out of the spotlight.
In the meantime, acting officials — a mix of career attorneys and recent political appointees — are leading DOJ divisions, which means there isn’t always a clear set of priorities or direction for line attorneys to follow.
A senior Trump administration official told BuzzFeed News in an email that with so few top positions filled, the main office leadership “is like a ghost town.” Three nominees for Justice Department positions have been waiting for a vote by the full Senate since early June, and more nominees are at various stages of the confirmation process.
“The comments by POTUS are no surprise but can't be helpful to main DOJ morale,” the administration official said.
A former Justice Department attorney who served under several administrations, including Trump's, and who remains in contact with attorneys at the department said that “morale is low.”
“You have a president who is criticizing an attorney general who he picked for essentially following the rules of legal ethics,” the former DOJ attorney said, referring to Trump’s criticism of Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe. “And that invites the kind of question that, ‘When I, a career prosecutor, has to follow the rules of ethics, what does that mean for me?’”
One former Justice Department attorney told BuzzFeed News that current attorneys were more concerned about Trump’s attacks on Rosenstein than on Sessions.
“None of the people that I know would be all that sad to see Sessions go down, so that may be why I haven’t heard any freaking out from those I know,” the former DOJ attorney said. “At least one of career people said to me that they feel like Rosenstein is the last best hope for the Justice Department in this administration.”
At a press conference on Thursday, Sessions and Rosenstein deflected questions about the president’s comments, and tried to steer the conversation back to what they were actually there to announce: a takedown of AlphaBay, a massive digital criminal marketplace. Their efforts were in vain — the first three questions were about Trump, and officials ended the press conference when it became clear no one wanted to ask about AlphaBay.
“We in this department will continue every single day to work hard to serve the national interest and we wholeheartedly join the priorities that President Trump...gave us," Sessions told reporters. "I have the honor of serving as attorney general. It is something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself. We love this job. We love this department. I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate."
At an off-camera briefing on Thursday, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Sessions wouldn’t have his job if the president lacked confidence in him, but did say that Trump was “disappointed” with his decision to recuse himself. Before Wednesday's report, there had been previous stories about Trump's frustration with Sessions' recusal. A Justice Department spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.
The president’s latest criticism notwithstanding, this week was also a reminder of some of the reasons why Sessions and Rosenstein will likely stay on even as they take jabs from the president.
In the five months since he was confirmed, Sessions has checked off several items on his policy to-do list. Sessions’ recusal from matters related to the 2016 election has meant he is free to bore down on his own agenda, unencumbered by the administration’s Russia albatross. He has rolled back some of the signature policy achievements of former attorney general Eric Holder, while pushing some conservative policies even outside the Republican mainstream.
Sessions decreed in May that prosecutors must pursue mandatory minimum prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders, and this week revived a policy of collaborating with state and local police to seize cash and other assets from suspects who may not be convicted of a crime. Both policies faced pushback from Sessions’ former Republican colleagues in the Senate, but hardly broke through the din of the Russia investigation and more high-profile policy fights, such as the health care fiasco.
Sessions delivered a private speech to the far-right Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom this month, and has used virtually every public appearance to warn that the scourge of crime is imperiling the nation as he pushes for a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities.
It hasn’t been all bad for Rosenstein either, despite the fact that his role in overseeing the Russia investigation puts him on Trump’s radar. A career prosecutor, Rosenstein has already overseen several successful high-profile criminal matters, including the AlphaBay action.
Julie Zebrak, a former longtime Justice Department official who is in touch with current career attorneys in the Criminal Division, said the lawyers there are trying to focus on their cases, although they are paying attention to news about Trump. Zebrak organized on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign after she left the federal government last year.
“With the Criminal Division, other than the fact that the people I spoke with rolled their eyes at Trump generally, they’re just really busy with their cases and the work of the Criminal Division,” Zebrak said.
James Trusty, a friend and former colleague of Rosenstein’s who now has a white-collar defense practice at Ifrah Law in Washington, DC, told BuzzFeed News that Rosenstein’s background as a prosecutor means he’s familiar with how the subjects of an investigation can lash out.
“It’s not an uncommon thing to see anyone in that position, let alone a … president, kind of shadowboxing and thinking that there is a problem or opponent or accusation coming from every direction at the same time,” Trusty said. “I’d suspect [Rosenstein has] got a sensitivity to that. ... He’s a professional prosecutor, he’s very used to having to keep his mouth shut during investigations, and maybe hear all sorts of crazy things in the public about what he’s doing.”