CBSN

Why is Trump going after Sessions on Twitter?

President Trump sure seems mad at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, huh?

He sure does. This is what he tweeted Monday:

Then this is what he tweeted Tuesday morning:

To put an even finer point on it, newly installed White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci told radio host Hugh Hewitt that Mr. Trump wants Sessions to go during an interview Tuesday morning. When asked by Hewitt if Mr. Trump wants Sessions "gone," Scaramucci replied, "If there's this level of tension in the relationship, that's public then you're probably right."

Mr. Trump reiterated that he was "very disappointed" in Sessions during a Tuesday press conference with Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon.He also said he wanted Sessions to be "much tougher" on leaks from the intelligence community, and "time will tell" if he remains Attorney General. 

Needless to say, it's is extremely unusual for a president to publicly attack his attorney general. And it is not normal for a president to seemingly call for the investigation and prosecution of his opponent.

But Trump called for Hillary Clinton's imprisonment during the campaign, right?

Right. We all remember those "lock her up!" chants from his rallies. And during the second presidential debate in October, after Clinton said that it's "just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of law and order in this country," Trump replied,  "Yeah, because you'd be in jail."

However, Mr. Trump sang a different tune once he was actually elected president. He told The New York Times last November that "not looking" to push for any prosecution of Clinton, saying it would be "very, very divisive for the country."

"My inclination would be for whatever power I have on the matter is to say let's go forward," Mr. Trump said then, adding that he did not "want to hurt the Clintons." 

So by not pursuing any investigation into Clinton, Sessions was doing what the president wanted?

It would seem that way.

Then why would Mr. Trump change his mind now?

This is a matter of some speculation, and theories abound. Some TV commenters friendly to Mr. Trump, particularly Fox News' Sean Hannity, have been calling for Clinton's prosecution for month. It's possible Mr. Trump has just changed his mind on the issue, or is just "thinking aloud," as White House aide Kellyanne Conway told Breitbart on Tuesday. 

Then again, there are other issues to consider.

Like what?

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, for one. Mueller is subordinate to the Justice Department, meaning he could be fired. But Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election that Mueller is now heading, meaning that Session can't fire Mueller.

But a new Attorney General could?

Yes. Mr. Trump has made it clear how unhappy he is with Mueller's investigation, which has a broad mandate to look into and prosecute crimes. That means the investigation could go beyond the Russia matter and into business deals that Mr. Trump made as a private citizen.

Wouldn't a new Attorney General need to be confirmed by the Senate?

Eventually, yes. But Mr. Trump could appoint one while the Senate is in recess later this month, meaning a confirmation could be put off until January. That means Mr. Trump would be able to install someone willing and able to fire Mueller and worry about keeping the new Attorney General next year.

Why doesn't he just fire Sessions, then?

There are big political risks to firing Sessions. For one thing, Sessions is well-liked by Republican lawmakers, particularly in the Senate. Some Senate Republicans have already stepped up to defend Sessions, in fact. Plus, Sessions is respected by ideological conservatives you would think Mr. Trump wants to keep happy. And it would be seen as a profound act of disloyalty to Sessions, a noted immigration hawk who was the first Senator to endorse Mr. Trump during the Republican primaries.

Also, while Mr. Trump is famous for his "you're fired!" catchphrase, Mr. Trump has been deeply hesitant to fire anyone in his administration. He seems to prefer it when they just quit their jobs, as now-former Press Secretary Sean Spicer did last week.

Mr. Trump, however, left the door open to firing Sessions in a Tuesday interview with the Wall Street Journal. "It's not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement," Mr. Trump told the paper. "I'm very disappointed in Jeff Sessions."

Does Sessions show any signs of quitting?

Not yet. According to CBS News' Paula Reid, he's just going about his business as if everything was normal.

Could Mr. Trump still fire Sessions?

Clearly he wants to, at least on some level. But given the risks, and Mr. Trump's hesitancy to fire anyone, it's pretty clear at this point he'd prefer if he just leaves on his own. That scenario, in theory, would also allow Mr. Trump to pass some level of blame for Mueller's firing onto someone else, namely the new Attorney General.

If Mueller is fired, what happens?

Depends. It might be the moment Mr. Trump's base, and Republican lawmakers en masse, turn on him. But they stuck with him, more or less, when former FBI Director James Comey was fired, and they might stick with him through this.

In any event, given that Republicans control both houses of Congress, the chance that Mr. Trump is impeached before next year's midterms is close to zero. Firing Sessions and/or Mueller would likely do great damage to his already testy relationship with Republican lawmakers, but there's not much evidence that Mr. Trump cares all that much about that relationship to begin with.