Trump keeps up public pelting of attorney general

Attorney General Jeff Sessions prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 13, 2017, before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about his role in the firing of James Comey, his Russian contacts during the campaign and his decision to recuse from an investigation into possible ties between Moscow and associates of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump kept up his public pelting of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday as the fate of his once-close ally remained very much in doubt.

Trump’s criticisms of Sessions resumed with a morning tweet wondering why Sessions didn’t “replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe,” whom the president characterized as a friend of fired former FBI director James Comey and an ally of Hillary Clinton.

The new tweet came a day after Trump repeatedly expressed regret over choosing Sessions for the Cabinet position and refused to say whether he’d fire the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

“We will see what happens,” Trump said at a Tuesday news conference in the Rose Garden. “Time will tell. Time will tell.”

The president’s intensifying criticism has fueled speculation that the attorney general may step down even if the president stops short of firing him. But several people close to the former Alabama senator have said that Sessions does not plan to quit.

McCabe has served as acting FBI director since Trump fired Comey in May. The president has been angry at McCabe for months, particularly after he highlighted the FBI’s work in the ongoing Russia probe and praised Comey during an appearance before Congress.

But Trump could have fired McCabe himself at any time. Trump’s pick to be the new FBI director, Christopher Wray, had his nomination voted out of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee last week.

The attorney general visited the White House on Wednesday morning for a routine meeting that did not include the president, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

He and Trump have not spoken in recent days. In private, Trump has told confidants that Sessions was disloyal in recusing himself from the federal investigation of Russia’s meddling in the presidential election and the possibility of collaboration with the Trump campaign. Sessions himself had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the election as a representative of the Trump campaign and thus stepped aside from the probe.

As he has previously, Trump said he would have “quite simply picked someone else” for the job if he’d known Sessions would recuse himself. He called Sessions’ decision a “bad thing for the presidency,” changing a word from his previous comments that it had been bad for “the president.” He also said the attorney general ought to get cracking on stopping leaks from federal intelligence agencies.

Sessions is expected to announce next week stepped up efforts to investigate leaks of sensitive information to the press, an official familiar with the matter said. The official said the announcement has been planned for some time, before Trump’s push for the crackdown. The official was not authorized to discuss the effort publicly ahead of the formal announcement and did so on condition of anonymity.

The president on Tuesday had tweeted: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!”

Trump’s harsh words drew a strong response from a number of Sessions’ former Senate colleagues, suggesting that all Republicans may not fall in line this time behind the president.

“Jeff Sessions is one of the most decent people I’ve ever met in my political life,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. “President Trump’s tweet today suggesting Attorney General Sessions pursue prosecution of a former political rival is highly inappropriate.”

But House Speaker Paul Ryan took a hands-off approach, saying simply: “The president gets to decide what his personnel is.”

Some White House aides and Trump confidants have begun discussing how to move on beyond Sessions, while others have cautioned the president against firing a figure popular among conservatives — especially during the heat of the Russia probe.

Sessions’ exit could also raise the specter of Trump asking Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — or whomever he appoints to fill the position — to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and potential collusion with Trump’s campaign. That would seem to fulfill the vision of the Justice Department that Trump’s critics believe he articulated during the campaign: a place that, at his direction, will punish his political enemies.

But Trump often talks about making staff changes without following through, so those who have spoken with the president cautioned that a change may not be imminent or happen at all.

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Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples, Jill Colvin and Eric Tucker contributed reporting.