By Julia Edwards Ainsley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top Republican lawmakers rallied to the defense of Jeff Sessions on Tuesday as allies of the attorney general said President Donald Trump appeared to be trying to pressure him to quit by repeatedly criticizing him on Twitter and in interviews.
Trump said again he was frustrated that Sessions had recused himself from the federal investigation into possible collusion between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russia and said he would not have appointed him had he known he would do so. He stopped short of saying whether he would fire him.
Two allies of Sessions told Reuters that Trump's public attacks went beyond a president simply venting his frustration but were part of a deliberate campaign to encourage the attorney general to step down.
They said Trump was likely reluctant to fire Sessions after his sacking of FBI Director James Comey backfired and led to the appointment of an independent special counsel, Robert Mueller, whose wide-ranging probe into contacts between Trump aides and Russian officials has cast a deep shadow over Trump's presidency.
The Kremlin says it did not interfere in the election, and Trump has denied any collusion.
Asked about Sessions' future, Trump said at a news conference on Tuesday, "Time will tell. Time will tell."
The two allies of Sessions said the attorney general, who was the first Republican senator to back Trump's presidential campaign, has been deeply offended by the public berating from his boss, but his resolve to stay is strong.
It is not clear though whether that will be possible in the long term if Sessions' relationship with the president irretrievably breaks down.
As Trump and top White House aides stepped up their attacks on Sessions on Tuesday, Republican lawmakers, stunned by the extraordinary scene of a president lambasting a member of his own cabinet, push backed strongly.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the chamber, said Sessions "is doing a fine job and made the right decision to recuse himself from the Russia matter."
Some lawmakers also expressed disquiet with Trump's public humiliation of Sessions, who has mostly stayed silent on his boss's criticism.
“Mr. President, maybe just try a meeting? This is beneath the office - of any held office - from city councilman to POTUS,” said Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger, using the presidential acronym.
The top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, accused Trump of trying to "bully his own attorney general out of office." He said if Trump fired Sessions, Democrats would fight any attempt to replace him during the August congressional recess.
The split between Trump and Republicans in Congress is the latest test of a strained relationship. Lawmakers have expressed frustration that the upheaval in the White House is distracting from their legislative agenda. Republicans have little to show for Trump's first six months in office.
"We're getting nothing done," lamented Senator John McCain on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
THROWING OUT THE RULEBOOK
Trump said in a tweet on Tuesday that Sessions had "taken a VERY weak position" on investigating his former opponent in the 2016 presidential election, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, over her use of a private email server. On Monday, Trump had called his attorney general "beleaguered".
Sessions recused himself in March from the Russia investigation after failing to disclose at his confirmation hearing that he had held meetings last year with Russia's ambassador in Washington.
In publicly attacking Sessions, Trump has torn out yet another page from the Washington rulebook - typically a president would convey his displeasure with a cabinet secretary out of the public eye.
"In an administration where a lot of unexpected things have happened, this may be the most unexpected. This has risen to a level that we have never seen before,” said Douglas Heye, a former top aide to former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
A third Sessions’ ally said an article published by the right-wing website Breitbart on Tuesday painting Trump as “weak” for criticizing a man who is tough on immigration was significant. Breitbart’s previous chairman, Steve Bannon, is one of Trump’s closest White House advisers.
“That says to Trump, ‘If you do this, if you get rid of him right now, you will have to face the wrath of the far right," said the ally.
Sessions made a name for himself for his hardline views on immigration and criminal justice. He is aligned with groups that lobby for cutting the number of legal immigrants allowed into country each year, as well as programs to ensure that employers aren't able to hire illegal workers.
As attorney general, he has vowed to crack down on the violent El Salvadorian gang Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, and strip Justice Department funding from so-called sanctuary cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
At a news conference last Thursday, Sessions said he loved his job and planned to stay in it "as long as that is appropriate."
A Justice Department official said Sessions started his day on Tuesday with his usual early morning run on the treadmill in the department's gym. Soon afterward, he got down to work.
(Writing by Ross Colvin; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Jim Oliphant, Doina Chiacu and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Kieran Murray)