WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions punched back hard at President Donald Trump's latest sneering criticism Thursday as their long-running rift exploded into a public smackdown. Trump, concerned by the legal downfall of two former advisers, accused Sessions of failing to take control of the Justice Department, leading Sessions to declare that he and his department "will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."
Trump's anger with Sessions boiled over in an interview with Fox News in which the president also expressed frustration with the plea agreement his onetime legal "fixer" Michael Cohen cut with prosecutors, including implicating Trump in a crime that Cohen admitted. Trump said it might be better if "flipping" — cooperating with prosecutors in exchange for more favorable treatment— were illegal because people cooperating with the government "just make up lies" to get favorable treatment.
In the wide-ranging interview, Trump also defended himself against talk of impeachment — "the market would crash ... everybody would be very poor" — tried to distance himself from Cohen — "I would see him sometimes" — and said anew that he hadn't known in advance about Cohen's hush money payments to silence women alleging sexual relationships with the celebrity businessman.
Trump's latest shots against law enforcement came as he appeared increasingly vulnerable to long-running investigations after this week's one-two punch of Cohen's plea deal and the conviction of Trump's former campaign chair Paul Manafort.
Trump has spent more than a year publicly and privately venting over Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the federal Russia-collusion investigation because he'd worked on Trump's campaign. Trump, who blames that decision for the eventual appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, told "Fox and Friends" host Ainsley Earhardt that Sessions "never took control of the Justice Department and it's a sort of an incredible thing."
"What kind of man is this?" Trump said.
"You know the only reason I gave him the job? Because I felt loyalty, he was an original supporter," Trump said of Sessions, an Alabama Republican who was the first senator to endorse Trump's bid.
Sessions has made clear to associates that he has no intention of leaving his job voluntarily despite Trump's constant criticism. But his tone in his statement on Thursday made clear he is tired of the president's attacks.
"I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in, which is why we have had unprecedented success at effectuating the President's agenda." Then he declared, that while he's attorney general the actions of the department "will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action."
In New York, meanwhile, it was reported that federal prosecutors have granted immunity to David Pecker, the publisher of National Enquirer, which bought and killed the stories of two women. And people familiar with the situation told The Associated Press that the publication kept a safe containing documents on hush money payments and other damaging stories it killed as part of its cozy relationship with Trump leading up to 2016 election.
In awkward schedule timing, Sessions met later Thursday with the president on prison and sentencing reform at the White House. But two people familiar with their meeting said the dispute was not discussed. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the private conversation.
Sessions has generally absorbed the Trump's blows without responding, though he has occasionally pushed back.
In February, after Trump complained that Sessions' response to Republican complaints about the FBI was "disgraceful," the attorney general said in statement he would "continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor" and the department would "continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner."
Allies, including Republican members of Congress have long advised Trump that firing Sessions — especially before the upcoming midterm elections — would be deeply damaging to the party.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who in March said firing Sessions would "blow up" the Judiciary Committee, has been shifting his tone.
"I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice," he told reporters on Thursday. "Clearly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions doesn't have the confidence of the president."
But others stood by Sessions.
Republican Ben Sasse of Nebraska told Senate colleagues, "Everybody in this body knows that Jeff Sessions is doing his job honorably, and the attorney general of the United States should not be fired for acting honorably and for being faithful to the rule of law." He said it would be really difficult to confirm a successor "if he is fired because he is executing his job rather that choosing to act as a partisan hack."
People close to the president said they were not aware of any immediate plans to dismiss Sessions, at least before the November congressional elections.
Cohen's claims that Trump orchestrated a campaign cover-up to buy the silence of two women who claimed he had affairs with them has shaken the White House and the president, who has expressed worry and frustration behind closed doors that a man intimately familiar with his political, personal and business dealings for more than a decade had turned on him.
His anger was palpable overnight as he bellowed to the world in an all-caps tweet at 1:10 a.m.: "NO COLLUSION - RIGGED WITCH HUNT!"
In his interview with "Fox & Friends," which was taped at the White House on Wednesday and aired Thursday, Trump railed against Cohen for "flipping."
"I know all about flipping," Trump said. "For 30, 40 years I've been watching flippers. Everything's wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they — they flip on whoever the next highest one is, or as high as you can go."
That arrangement "almost ought to be outlawed. It's not fair," Trump said, adding that it creates an incentive to "say bad things about somebody ... just make up lies."
That drew immediate rebukes from the legal community.
Neal Katyal, Supreme Court lawyer and former acting solicitor general, compared Trump's comments in a tweet to "what one expects from a mobster, not the President of the United States." He later said it was outrageous that Trump had "decided to condemn the entire practice of flipping nationwide, which is essential to law enforcement operations."
"If President Trump's views were the law, literally thousands of criminals would be on the street today," he said.
The president's comment and others in recent days have fed criticism that Trump, a "law and order" candidate, is now living in an upside-down world in which campaign finance violations are "not a crime," former White House Counsel John Dean, who helped expose the Watergate scandal, is a "RAT," and Manafort, a man found guilty of defrauding the government, should be applauded.
Trump has said repeatedly that he feels bad for Manafort, and has praised him for refusing to cooperate with the DOJ.
"(U)nlike Michael Cohen, he refused to 'break' - make up stories in order to get a 'deal.' Such respect for a brave man!" he tweeted.
Dean, counsel under President Richard Nixon, went to jail for his role in the Watergate scandal, but also cooperated with the government. He tweeted Thursday that Trump "thinks, acts and sounds like a mob boss."
Some Democrats, meanwhile, are discussing the possibility of impeaching Trump — should they retake control of the House in November's elections.
Trump argued such a move could have dire economic consequences, but added: "I don't know how you can impeach somebody who's done a great job."
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Jonathan Lemire, Chad Day, Ken Thomas and Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.