WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions absorbed every taunt and Twitter bomb lobbed his way by a displeased boss.
Like so many political rivals he dispatched during a scorched-earth campaign for the White House, President Trump publicly shamed his attorney general as weak or beleaguered.
Sessions, one of the president’s earliest and most vocal supporters, largely sat silent — until now.
Sessions quickly responded Wednesday to Trump’s latest Twitter lashing, in which he called the attorney general “disgraceful” for choosing the Justice Department’s inspector general instead of prosecutors to review alleged surveillance abuses of a former Trump campaign aide.
“As long as I am the attorney general,” Sessions said Wednesday, “I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor.”
Though the language was measured, the meaning was not.
Intentionally or not, Sessions added an exclamation point hours later when he was photographed at a restaurant dining with Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, another target of Trump’s ire for his support of special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election. The president's alliance with his attorney general was altered a year ago when Sessions recused himself from managing the Russia inquiry.
Two former attorneys general rallied to Sessions' defense Thursday, including Edwin Meese who said Trump's treatment of the former Alabama senator has been unfair and probably unprecedented.
"I know it's not always his way to respond (to the president), but it was important for Jeff to stand behind the (Justice Department) when it is doing the right thing," said Meese, who served in the Reagan administration.
Meese said Trump's attorney general has done more to "further the president's agenda than anybody" on immigration enforcement, combating violent crime and opioid abuse.
'I can't explain it'
"I can't explain it," Meese said of the president's criticism.
William "Bill" Barr, an attorney general to President George H.W. Bush, said it was important for the public to hear from Sessions in the wake of Trump's latest criticism.
"I think he was reminding the American people of a key attribute that we need in an attorney general, and that is integrity," Barr said. "He's saying, 'Look, I'm calling things as I see it.' "
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Thursday that the president stood by his criticism of Sessions.
"The president has made his frustrations very clear," Sanders said.
Asked whether Trump planned to dismiss his attorney general, Sanders said, "Not that I know of."
Sessions was at the White House Thursday to participate in a summit on opioid abuse. Sanders said the two did not speak, although Trump referred to Sessions, indicating that he had consulted with the attorney general about bringing legal action against opioid manufacturers.
Trump's most recent criticism of Sessions is the most pointed since last spring and summer. But acting on it is fraught with risk.
Any move to oust Sessions could be viewed as an attempt to wrest control of Mueller's wide-ranging inquiry, which includes looking into whether the president sought to obstruct the investigation.
"If Trump removes Sessions, Mueller would have to look at this very carefully in combination with the president's dismissal of (FBI director James) Comey as an effort to damage, derail or slow down the Russia investigation," said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor.
Cotter said Trump's tweets and public statements demonstrated the president's disappointment in Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia inquiry last year. Trump was so angry with Sessions' recusal that the attorney general offered his resignation, which the president did not accept.
"And in the (May) interview with NBC, he acknowledged firing Comey because of his handling of the Russia investigation. Whatever Trump does, it seems to make it easier for prosecutors," Cotter said.
The political costs of removing Sessions could be just as risky.
The attorney general enjoys fairly strong support among Republicans for aggressively pursuing Trump's agenda at the Justice Department.
In addition to focusing attention on recent spikes in homicide, he has ordered a sweeping review of police agreements that punished troubled agencies; rolled back a series of Obama-era civil rights actions, including a Justice Department challenge to a controversial voter identification law in Texas; and threatened so-called sanctuary cities for harboring undocumented immigrants.
In January, the attorney general paved the way for tougher marijuana enforcement when he rescinded the previous administration's policy of non-interference with state laws allowing the use of medical and recreational pot.
This week, Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., citing Sessions' loyalty, said the president should refrain from publicly rebuking the attorney general.
"Jeff Sessions is loyal to the president, and he's one of the first to support him," King said on Fox News. "He's often in very difficult positions, and I think he's trying to reconcile as best as he can."
But Republican support is not unanimous.
House Freedom Caucus leaders Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio called for the attorney general to step down. The congressmen, citing Sessions' recusal from the Russia inquiry, asserted that the attorney general can no longer adequately manage the department and the FBI.
Trump's attacks on Sessions and the possible implications for the Russia investigation spawned some unlikely alliances as some Democrats urged Sessions to remain.
In January, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who voted against Sessions' confirmation, said the attorney general should not resign.
"Nothing, nothing should ever interfere with the Mueller investigation," he said.
Sessions draws inspiration and encouragement from some of the same men whose portraits hang in his fifth-floor conference room at the Justice Department.
One of them, Meese, said he spoke to the attorney general recently and urged him to carry on.
"I was impressed," Meese said. "He was in good spirits. I told him he was doing a great job."