STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So what's it like to work in the Justice Department when your boss is under attack by his boss? That is the reality this week as President Trump continues denouncing Attorney General Jeff Sessions. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says that does not mean Trump is going to fire Sessions.
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: He can be disappointed in someone but still want them to continue to do their job. And that's where they are.
INSKEEP: Although, the president has made many an unexpected decision. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is on the line. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What are you hearing from people inside the Justice Department, which you've covered for so long?
JOHNSON: Well, morale is not great, especially at the highest levels of the DOJ. It's got to be a distraction when every morning you're wondering what your boss might be saying about you on social media to the world, something like 30 million followers or more. And Jeff Sessions, you know, he is a former U.S. attorney, a former state attorney general.
Some people inside Justice with whom I've been speaking were not big Jeff Sessions fans before this year. But they've kind of rallied to his defense amid this bullying from the president. In some ways, Jeff Sessions is standing in for the integrity of the institution and independence of the Justice Department itself.
INSKEEP: Because Sessions did the very thing that made the president mad. He recused himself from the Russia investigation after he discovered that - or after he admitted that he'd had meetings with Russians that would make him seem compromised. That's what makes him seem like he's standing up for integrity?
JOHNSON: Well, you know, Steve, Jeff Sessions followed the rules. There are Justice Department rules on the books that say, when you're affiliated in some manner with a campaign, you shouldn't be overseeing any matter or investigation related to that campaign. That was clear. Jeff Sessions donned a make America great again hat. He was a big surrogate for Donald Trump. The rule was clear. Jeff Sessions followed the rule. And the president is beating him up for following the rules.
INSKEEP: With that said, the president has not gotten Jeff Sessions to resign. It's not clear that he wants Jeff Sessions to resign. But he is, as you say, bullying the attorney general of the United States and making demands. I want investigations of leaks. I want investigations of Hillary Clinton. I want different things. Is he getting any results?
JOHNSON: Well, the Justice Department does not launch investigations based on the political will of any president. That is not going to happen. Remember that the Justice Department already investigated Hillary Clinton and her emails, found no criminal charges were warranted there. And with respect to some other things the president wants, Jeff Sessions and the DOJ say they are very concerned about national security leaks and leaks in Washington. And in the next week or so, they're going to be announcing some new measures in that respect.
Jeff Sessions also this week, Steve, stepped up his campaign against immigration - or tough, immigration-related measures. He announced that jurisdictions that don't cooperate with federal immigration authorities will not be getting federal grant money to pay for police salaries, equipment, training, things like that.
INSKEEP: Help me out here, Carrie Johnson, because you said the Justice Department does not begin an investigation because a politician demands it. Of course, what we mean there is the Justice Department is not supposed to do that. But then you told me the president demanded leak investigations. And the Justice Department now plans to announce some leak investigations. Whatever their original motivation, isn't that inevitably going to seem politicized now?
JOHNSON: There are some questions about that from veterans, inside the DOJ and out. But when you're talking about policy and a crackdown, that's different than investigating or a directive to investigate a specific individual or matter.
INSKEEP: Anthony Scaramucci, the president's communications director, made a little bit of news last night because he was very unhappy about what he felt like was a leak of his financial disclosure, his financial information. It seems to have been a public document that was published. But Scaramucci was unhappy last night and said he wanted the FBI to investigate. Is that the kind of thing the FBI would, in fact, investigate?
JOHNSON: Well, it's not clear to me that any law was violated there. That said, from the top on down, from the defense secretary to the attorney general to the president, there has been a lot of concern about leaking this year. In fact, DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Flores sent out an email last night decrying what she called an astonishing increase in the number of leaks of classified material in recent months. And they are going to make cases where they can find one.
INSKEEP: So suppose the president did decide to get rid of his attorney general, and Sessions doesn't want to go. Can the president just fire him?
INSKEEP: The president can fire the attorney general for any reason at any time. But, Steve, we're starting to see a lot of pushback from Republicans, in Congress and out, who say there's no reason to fire Jeff Sessions. In fact, Senator Chuck Grassley, who leads the judiciary committee, tweeted last night that the agenda for the committee for 2017 is already full. He's going to confirm judges, sub-Cabinet posts - the AG, he said, no way - a message to the president not to get rid of Jeff Sessions right now.
INSKEEP: OK, so the message is if you nominate somebody, I would consider that nomination in some other year. It wouldn't even be this year. However, there's been a lot of talk of a recess appointment, Carrie Johnson. Would you explain what that is and how it would work if the president were ever to choose to do such a thing?
JOHNSON: Yeah, during periods when the Senate is in recess for something like 10 days or more, the president has the power to name people into specific jobs. That said, Steve, there's a big Supreme Court case on the books that says the president doesn't get to decide when a recess is, the Senate does. And Senate Democrats, including Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, have said that if they get wind that the president wants to install a recess appointment at the Justice Department, they are going to use procedures and everything within their power to make sure there is no recess for Donald Trump to be able to install a new leader at DOJ.
INSKEEP: Is there any solid indication that the president might be moving anywhere near that direction?
JOHNSON: Well, we're hearing increasingly that the campaign from Republicans in and outside Congress is working. Ken Starr, former independent counsel, last night wrote an op-ed saying the president is using Jeff Sessions like a pinata. He's never seen anything like it in 50 years, in and around Washington.
INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks for your insights, really appreciate it.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.