In shift, Democrats try to keep Sessions as attorney general

Schumer: 'Nothing' should interfere with Mueller

By MANU RAJU AND JEREMY HERB, CNN
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jeff Sessions

(CNN) - Last year, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was blunt in his assessment of Jeff Sessions: "For the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign."

Now, Schumer and other Democrats have changed their tune, suggesting Sessions should stay in the job as long as special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

"I voted against Jeff Sessions and said he never should be there in the first place, given his record on civil rights, on immigration, on so many other issues," Schumer said Thursday in the Capitol. "My view now is very simple: nothing, nothing should ever interfere with the Mueller investigation."

As two leading House conservatives demanded Thursday that Sessions resign, citing in part the attorney general's recusal from running the Russia investigation, Democrats are now coming to the defense of an attorney general they have long opposed.

With Sessions recused from the Russia investigation, they believe, they have the attorney general in a perfect spot. Mueller has to report to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, rather than Sessions, who was the President's first supporter as a senator and a top surrogate on the campaign trail.

If Sessions were to resign or be fired by Trump, then the President could install a new attorney general -- potentially a loyalist who could influence the Mueller probe.

And that has put Democrats in an awkward spot, giving a full-throated defense of Sessions. He was confirmed last February with all Democrats voting against him except for West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

"I have a lot of differences of opinion with Jeff Sessions, but I don't think the case has been made for his resigning," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat. "It would be problematic in a lot of ways."

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the call for Sessions' resignation was just "one more effort to try to obfuscate and frankly interfere with the Mueller investigation."

Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who has called on Trump to resign following sexual harassment allegations, will no longer call on Sessions to step aside.

"There was a time earlier in his tenure that I called him on to resign," Merkley said. "At this point, I would have to determine the consequences knowing the president may be trying to obstruct justice."

Trump has publicly and privately fumed that Sessions should not have recused himself from the Russia investigation, and has criticized the attorney general repeatedly, including calling him "beleaguered." And while Sessions has signaled he is not going to resign, speculation has mounted that Trump could fire his attorney general to assert more control over the Russia probe.

On Thursday, two top House conservatives -- who are part of an investigation into the FBI's decisions during the 2016 campaign -- gave the President cover should he take that step. Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, said bluntly that Sessions should step aside.

"Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Russia investigation, but it would appear he has no control at all of the premier law enforcement agency in the world," they said in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner. "If Sessions can't address this issue immediately, then we have one final question needing an answer: When is it time for a new attorney general?

"Sadly, it seems the answer is now," they wrote.

But Senate Republicans, by and large, stood by Sessions, who served with many of them when he was the junior senator from Alabama.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley --- who has clashed with the Justice Department over the Clinton email investigation and memos written by former FBI Director James Comey --- says he still backs Sessions at DOJ, and he declined to join with the House Republicans who called for Sessions' resignation Thursday.

"I believe at this point, I'd have to say that I'm glad that Sessions is attorney general," Grassley said. "Do I agree with everything he does or maybe things he ought to be doing that he's not doing? The answer is no. But I wouldn't call for his resignation."

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Meadows and Jordan were "off base."

"Anybody who questions the fitness of Bob Mueller or refers to the Justice Department as a deep state is off base, and we shouldn't so distrust in our institutions like that," Flake said.

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