WASHINGTON >> Jeff Sessions was “weak,” the president of the United States shouted.
Donald Trump was livid — as angry as aide Steve Bannon had ever seen him. And the worst of his fury was directed at his attorney general.
It was March 3, 2017, the day after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. Several of Trump’s top advisers — but not Sessions — had gathered in the Oval Office. Trump screamed at them, but reserved his greatest wrath for the nation’s chief law enforcement official.
His anger at Sessions wouldn’t abate — not until he finally fired him, more than 20 months later.
Trump’s frustration with — and entreaties to — Sessions began in the early months of 2017 as his former loyal supporter mulled whether he should remove himself from the Russia investigation because of his role in the campaign. Scrutiny of Sessions, a former Alabama senator, increased after reports that he hadn’t disclosed two meetings with the Russian ambassador before the election .
On Thursday morning, March 2, the day after those reports surfaced, Trump called White House counsel Don McGahn, urging him to appeal to Sessions not to recuse himself.
McGahn reached out to Sessions personally at least three times, to his top aides and even to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — all to no avail.
Sessions would announce his recusal that afternoon. To Sessions, it wasn’t a close call. He believed the regulations were clear. But he knew the president was mad at him.
At the White House, aides worried about the specter of obstruction of justice. In the hours after Sessions’ announcement, McGahn’s office directed that the attorney general should not be contacted about the matter. One of McGahn’s top aides jotted down in her notes: “No contact w/Sessions” and “No comms/Serious concerns about obstruction.”
At the same time, aides tried to calm the angry president. McGahn told Trump in the Oval Office meeting that ethics officials had weighed in; Bannon told him the recusal wasn’t a surprise.
That weekend, Sessions traveled with McGahn to Trump’s Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago, where the president pulled him aside, alone, and suggested he “unrecuse.” But Sessions would not change his mind.
Trump’s anger flared again in early May, after FBI Director James Comey refused to tell a congressional hearing that Trump himself wasn’t under investigation.
“This is terrible Jeff,” Trump told Sessions. “It’s all because you recused.”
Trump fired Comey, but the Russia investigation did not end: the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, appointed special counsel Robert Mueller to take charge.
Sessions found out about that appointment while he was with Trump at the White House, conducting interviews for a new FBI director. Sessions stepped out to take the call from Rosenstein, and then personally informed Trump of the news.
It didn’t go over well.
Trump cursed and said it was the end of his presidency. And he again turned on Sessions.
“How could you let this happen, Jeff?” Trump asked. He told Sessions he needed to resign.
Sessions agreed, and left.
The next day, Sessions finalized a resignation letter that said: “Pursuant to our conversation of yesterday, and at your request, I hereby offer my resignation.” He brought it to the White House and handed it to the president, who put the letter in his pocket.
Instead of immediately accepting the resignation, though, Trump asked Sessions several times if he wanted to stay on. Sessions said he did, but it was up to Trump. Trump ultimately said he wanted the attorney general to remain, and they shook hands.
But the president didn’t return the letter.
Over the next two weeks, as Trump traveled in the Middle East, his aides fretted over the unreturned letter and told Sessions they would try and get it back. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Sessions he was concerned because the letter could be used as a “shock collar” to hold over the attorney general’s head.
On a flight from Saudi Arabia to Tel Aviv, Trump pulled the letter out of his pocket and showed it to a group of senior advisers, including aide Hope Hicks, and asked what he should do.
It wasn’t until May 30, several days after returning from his trip, that Trump returned the letter to Sessions with a notation: “not accepted.”
Through the year, Trump tried several times to get Sessions to change his mind about recusal, alter the direction of Mueller’s probe or investigate his political enemies, including Hillary Clinton.
In June, Trump asked his former campaign manager and confidant, Corey Lewandowski, to deliver a message to Sessions: He should publicly announce that the investigation was unfair to Trump. He should also tell the public that he would meet with Mueller and direct him to refocus the probe on future elections. Lewandowski never delivered the message and stored the notes in a safe in his home.
The president met with Lewandowski again in July and asked for an update. Lewandowski said his message would be delivered soon, and then asked White House aide Rick Dearborn — a former Sessions Senate aide — to pass it along instead. Dearborn felt uncomfortable with the request and did not follow through.
Trump also asked Priebus to get Sessions to resign — prompting Priebus and McGahn to discuss whether they might have to resign rather than carry out the order. Trump eventually backed off after Priebus told him that firing Sessions would be a political calamity.
Trump began tweeting about Sessions, calling him “embattled” and making it clear to the public that his job was in jeopardy. According to Sessions’ chief of staff, Sessions prepared another resignation letter and kept it in his pocket every time he went to the White House.
The public flogging continued through 2018, as Trump tweeted criticism of Mueller’s probe and often blamed Sessions for it.
On Nov. 7, 2018, the day after the midterm elections, Trump finally pushed Sessions out, using social media to signal the end of his long campaign to rid himself of an attorney general who would not bend to his wishes.
“We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well!” he tweeted.