WASHINGTON — By the time Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrived at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort for dinner one Saturday evening in March 2017, he had been receiving the presidential silent treatment for two days. Mr. Sessions had flown to Florida because Mr. Trump was refusing to take his calls about a pressing decision on his travel ban.
When they met, Mr. Trump was ready to talk — but not about the travel ban. His grievance was with Mr. Sessions: The president objected to his decision to recuse himselffrom the Russia investigation. Mr. Trump, who had told aides that he needed a loyalist overseeing the inquiry, berated Mr. Sessions and told him he should reverse his decision, an unusual and potentially inappropriate request.
Mr. Sessions refused.
The confrontation, which has not been previously reported, is being investigated by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, as are the president’s public and private attacks on Mr. Sessions and efforts to get him to resign. Mr. Trump dwelled on the recusal for months, according to confidants and current and former administration officials who described his behavior toward the attorney general.
The special counsel’s interest demonstrates Mr. Sessions’s overlooked role as a key witness in the investigation into whether Mr. Trump tried to obstruct the inquiry itself. It also suggests that the obstruction investigation is broader than it is widely understood to be — encompassing not only the president’s interactions with and firing of the former F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, but also his relationship with Mr. Sessions.
Investigators have pressed current and former White House officials about Mr. Trump’s treatment of Mr. Sessions and whether they believe the president was trying to impede the Russia investigation by pressuring him. The attorney general was also interviewed at length by Mr. Mueller’s investigators in January. And of the four dozen or so questions Mr. Mueller wants to ask Mr. Trump, eight relate to Mr. Sessions. Among them: What efforts did you make to try to get him to reverse his recusal?
The president’s lead lawyer in the case, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said that if Mr. Trump agreed to answer the special counsel’s questions — an interview is the subject of continuing negotiations — he should not be forced to discuss his private deliberations with senior administration officials. Talking about the attorney general, Mr. Giuliani argued, would set a bad precedent for future presidents.
Mr. Giuliani said that he had not discussed Mr. Sessions’s recusal with Mr. Trump but that a request that Mr. Sessions reassert control over the Russia investigation would be within the bounds of the president’s authority.
“‘Unrecuse’ doesn’t say, ‘Bury the investigation.’ It says on the face of it: Take responsibility for it and handle it correctly,” Mr. Giuliani said on Tuesday evening.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
To the president, no decision has proved more devastating during his time in office than Mr. Sessions’s recusal. In Mr. Trump’s view, Mr. Sessions, who had been one of his closest political allies and earliest prominent supporter in Washington, never would have appointed a special counsel, as the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, did last May after the president abruptly fired Mr. Comey.
Before the recusal, the president and his attorney general were friends, often sharing meals and talking on the phone. Today, they rarely speak outside of cabinet meetings, current and former White House officials and others briefed on their relationship said. They even flew separately in March from Washington to the same event in New Hampshire. Mr. Trump complains to friends about how much he would like to get rid of Mr. Sessions but has demurred under pressure from Senate Republicans who have indicated they would not confirm a new attorney general.
Because of his recusal, Mr. Sessions has been mostly absent from the president’s ire toward the investigation and the Justice Department. He has enforced Mr. Trump’s agenda more successfully than perhaps any cabinet member, imposing conservative policies on immigration and violent crime that are popular with Mr. Trump’s core supporters.
Pressure on Mr. Sessions to step aside from the Russia investigation began building almost as soon as he took office, culminating in a Washington Post report on March 1 that he had not been forthcoming during his Senate confirmation hearing about his contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. Career lawyers at the Justice Department had advised Mr. Sessions to step aside, citing ethics guidelines about impartiality and his role as a prominent supporter of the Trump campaign.
Mr. Trump immediately recognized the potential effect of a recusal. He had his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, lobby Mr. Sessions to retain oversight of the inquiry.
To Justice Department officials close to Mr. Sessions, the request by the president made through Mr. McGahn was inappropriate, particularly because it was clear to them that Mr. Sessions had to step aside. After Mr. Sessions told Mr. McGahn that he would follow the Justice Department lawyers’ advice to recuse himself from all matters related to the election, Mr. McGahn backed down. Mr. Sessions recused himself on March 2.
When Mr. Trump learned of the recusal, he asked advisers whether the decision could be reversed, according to people briefed on the matter. Told no, Mr. Trump argued that Eric H. Holder Jr., President Barack Obama’s first attorney general, would never have recused himself from a case that threatened to tarnish Mr. Obama. The president said he expected the same loyalty from Mr. Sessions.
Some people close to the president have said privately that they believed the recusal was overly broad and done too hastily in the middle of public scrutiny over Mr. Sessions’s congressional testimony.
The day after the recusal, as the president prepared to travel to Florida, Mr. Trump was seen through the windows of the Oval Office by news cameras, gesticulating angrily as he argued with top advisers who had gathered to determine how to go forward with the travel ban, which had been blocked by a federal judge. Justice Department officials had concluded the policy must be withdrawn and revised, a move that Mr. Trump was resisting because he thought it was watered down.
But, preoccupied with Mr. Sessions’s decision and determined to find a way forward, he spent the first 10 minutes of the meeting venting about it, a former White House official said.
The meeting ended without a resolution about the travel ban. And after Mr. Trump flew to Florida, his advisers decided that the only way to get the president’s signoff to revise the immigration order — a time-sensitive matter because of pending litigation — would be to dispatch the attorney general to Mr. Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., retreat, to implore him in person, the current and former administration officials said.
It was at Mar-a-Lago the next evening that Mr. Trump brought up the Russia investigation with Mr. Sessions and asked him to change his mind about stepping aside, the people said.
Prosecutors rarely go back on recusals. Legal experts said that occasionally, prosecutors who handed off a case to colleagues over concerns about a possible financial conflict of interest would take the decision back after confirming none existed. But the experts said they could think of no instance in which a prosecutor stepped aside from a case in circumstances similar to Mr. Sessions’s. Justice Department guidelines on recusal are in place to prevent the sort of political meddling the president tried to engage in, they said.
“It’s yet more behavior that tramples on the line between law and politics,” said Samuel W. Buell, a professor of law at Duke University and former federal prosecutor.
As the months wore on, Mr. Trump returned again and again to the recusal.
In July, he told The New York Times that he never would have nominated Mr. Sessions if he had known that Mr. Sessions would not oversee the Russia investigation. Two days later, a Washington Post report about Mr. Sessions’s campaign discussions with Russia’s ambassador sent Mr. Trump into another rage. Aboard Marine One that Saturday, the president told his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, to get Mr. Sessions to resign by the end of the weekend, according to a person briefed on the conversation.
Unnerved and convinced the president wanted to install a new attorney general who could oversee the Russia investigation, Mr. Priebus called Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff at the time, Jody Hunt, who said that the president would have to ask Mr. Sessions himself to resign. Unsure how to proceed, Mr. Priebus simply waited out the president, who never called Mr. Sessions but did attack him that week on Twitter.
Days later, Mr. Priebus was out as chief of staff. The special counsel has told the president’s lawyers that he wants to ask Mr. Trump about those discussions with Mr. Priebus and why he publicly criticized Mr. Sessions.
Mr. Trump brought up the recusal again with associates later last year, expressing a desire for Mr. Sessions to reassert control over an investigation that has since resulted in the indictment of his former campaign chairman and guilty pleas by two other campaign aides and his former national security adviser.
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