NOEL KING, HOST:
As head of the Justice Department, it would have been Jeff Sessions' job to oversee the special counsel's investigation into the 2016 presidential election. But citing advice from top officials at the DOJ, Sessions, who was closely involved with President Trump's campaign, decided to recuse himself from all matters having to do with the election. Now, that choice really bothered the president. He has criticized Sessions very publicly. Here's Trump speaking on Fox News yesterday morning.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He took the job, and then he said, I'm going to recuse myself. I said, what kind of a man is this?
KING: Now, Jeff Sessions for the most part has not said much in return, until yesterday. NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley is here with me now. Good morning, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: All right. So after months of criticism from the president, Jeff Sessions finally said something. What did he say?
HORSLEY: He pushed back hard against the president's claim in that Fox interview that somehow Sessions had never taken control of the Justice Department. Sessions responded sharply in a statement, saying, I took control of the Justice Department the day I was sworn in. And he talked about his efforts to advance the president's legal agenda on things like immigration enforcement and what the White House calls religious liberty. Sessions then went on to defend the men and women who worked for the Justice Department - the prosecutors and investigators that the president often criticizes as witch hunters. Sessions said he's proud to serve with those people, and he said as long as he is attorney general, their work won't be swayed by political considerations. This was really the sort of declaration of independence that we traditionally expect from the Department of Justice, but it was a stern rebuke to the president, who expects his attorney general to act as sort of his personal interference section.
KING: And how did the president respond to that rebuke?
HORSLEY: Well, Trump's thumbs have been active this morning. He paraphrased Sessions' statement about the Justice Department not being improperly influenced by political considerations. He said, Jeff, this is great. What everyone wants. Then he went on to urge the attorney general to look into what he called corruption on the other side, including deleted emails, presumably from Hillary Clinton, Russian collusion by Democrats, the Clinton Foundation and so much more. Trump added in a tweet, come on, Jeff. You can do it. The country is waiting.
KING: OK. Wow. This administration, where there's been historic levels of turnover, right - everybody seems to be leaving. Many people seem to be leaving - why is Jeff Sessions still around?
HORSLEY: Well, one reason, remember, Jeff Sessions is a former senator. And although he clashed with his colleagues in the Senate from time to time, he still has a lot of support in that chamber. Yesterday we heard from Senator Cornyn, who's a member of the Republican leadership, saying Sessions is a quintessential Boy Scout. And he said it would be bad for the president, bad for the Department of Justice and bad for the country for Sessions to be forced out under these circumstances. So Cornyn said he hopes that Sessions stays the course and that cooler heads prevail.
KING: Is there any sense that there is support - the support that Sessions has found in the Senate is softening at all?
HORSLEY: Well, we did see Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, open the door yesterday to holding confirmation hearings for a replacement for Sessions. That's a shift for Grassley, and it's critical because if, for example, President Trump were to fire Sessions, the person in charge of the Justice Department, until a replacement would be confirmed, is Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. Obviously, the president has clashed with Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Mueller investigation. So a key consideration in whether Trump ousts Sessions is whether the Senate would actually be willing to confirm a successor. We heard a hint yesterday from Chuck Grassley that he might be.
KING: Scott, before we let you go, let me shift gears just a quick second. We have multiple reports this morning that a man named David Pecker, who's head of a media company, AMI, has been granted limited immunity from federal prosecutors and this could have implications for the president. Who is Mr. Pecker and why do prosecutors want to talk to him?
HORSLEY: AMI publishes the National Enquirer and a host of other tabloids, and Pecker played a role in suppressing negative stories about Trump during the 2016 campaign, including those claims by a porn star and a former Playboy bunny that they had had sexual encounters with then-candidate Donald Trump. That information was central to some of the guilty pleas we heard this week from Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen. And we believe that Mr. Pecker might know more about Donald Trump. They go back a long way. And, as you say, The Wall Street Journal and others are reporting that Pecker has been granted limited immunity.
KING: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks so much, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.