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Ex-Attorney General Slams Trump For Lashing Out At Sessions


We're going to start the program today looking at what has been another remarkable week in politics, a week in which President Trump's former campaign chair was convicted in a financial fraud trial and President Trump's longtime lawyer admitted under oath to steering money to two different women at what he said was Mr. Trump's direction, in a manner which amounts to a felony violation of campaign finance law. Yesterday, a top executive of the Trump Organization made a deal with federal prosecutors in exchange for immunity.

And all this has President Trump on a Twitter tear, and he's aiming a lot of his anger at Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president has criticized Mr. Sessions repeatedly in recent months, sometimes in terms that border upon personal insult, all this because of Mr. Sessions' decision to follow Justice Department guidelines and recuse himself from the investigations into Russia's efforts to influence U.S. elections. Earlier this week, the attorney general responded in a rare statement, saying, quote, "while I am Attorney General, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations," unquote.

Now, in recent months, we've often turned to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to help us understand what events like this might mean, so we're turning to him again for that. He was appointed by President George W. Bush. He is now dean of the law school at Belmont University. He's also a former judge.

Your Honor, Dean Gonzales, welcome. Thanks for joining us once again.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Hey. It's good to be with you once again.

MARTIN: So first of all, I just wanted to ask you, what strikes you about this whole exchange between the president and the attorney general, which I know you have called extraordinary? What's extraordinary about it?

GONZALES: Well, what's extraordinary - and there are so many ways to describe it - remarkable, unprecedented - is the fact that you have the head of the executive branch, the president of the United States, being openly critical of one of his Cabinet appointees. It makes one wonder - it certainly makes me wonder, well, you know, if you believe the attorney general is not stepping up and doing the job right, then why not make a change?

My sense is that this constant criticism of Jeff Sessions, I think, I fear, makes the president look somewhat weak and that, really, if you're so unsatisfied with this performance of his cabinet secretary, then why don't you make a change? There are obviously good reasons why he shouldn't make a change, in my judgment, which leads me to the conclusion then perhaps it would be best if the president did not make such open critical comments about the attorney general for several reasons, two of them being that - well, I can think of three.

First of all, I think Jeff Sessions, probably more than any other cabinet secretary, has done more to promote the president's policies and priorities in the law enforcement area. Secondly, Jeff Sessions loves this job and is going to stay in this job and has no intention of quitting. And I think he's worried about the future of the department and wants to protect the department.

And I think the constant criticism of the attorney general undermines his authority, and I think it hurts the morale of the Department of Justice. I can't help but feel that the rank and file are feeling this criticism, and I think it can be demoralizing. And I think it calls into question the integrity of the entire institution.

MARTIN: I want to turn now to the attorney general's response. It was highly unusual for him to respond in the way that he did to the president. First of all, I have to ask you, can you remember any circumstance in which an attorney general issued a statement directly responding to his boss, essentially - the president - a criticism of his work? Can you remember anything like that?

GONZALES: No. There may have been private conversations, private criticism by a president and a private response - a strong response by an attorney general, but obviously, this is - this dialogue is very public. And, you know, Jeff Sessions, to his credit - and I really admire the fact that he has done exactly the right thing in response to these tweets and public attacks. He's kept his head down. He's remained silent, and he's focused on the work of the department. I think what finally got him to make a response is the accusation that the department is out of control. I mean, that is a serious allegation.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that because you also said that you think these kinds of attacks have an effect on the people who work at the Department of Justice. What kind of - I'm just interested in your take on this as a person who, obviously, led the department. You think that these attacks, even though they seem to be directed at the attorney general personally and directly, you think they have an effect on the rank and file. What effect do you think they have? And broadly, the question is, what effect do you think that it has on the public and the administration of justice more broadly? Do you think it does have an effect?

GONZALES: I think it does have an effect. With respect to the rank and file, I think we all want to believe we're working for a cause and we're working for someone that we believe in. And if, in fact, the president of the United States believes that the attorney general is somehow not up to the job, you know, I think that is demoralizing. As to your second point, I think that the constant criticism undermines the perception the American people may have in the Department of Justice.

As I've said several times already, you know, when a U.S. attorney stands up in court and says, present, Your Honor, for the United States of America, and everything that that attorney utters in court - there cannot be any question whatsoever about the competence and the integrity of that lawyer. And if, in fact, people believe that the Department of Justice has been politicized, even though the criticism is leveled solely at the leadership - but, you know, it just filters down - I think it does undermine the public's confidence in the entire department. And I think that's a very regrettable situation.

MARTIN: That's Alberto Gonzales. He served as the attorney general of the United States during the George W. Bush administration. He's also a former White House counsel. He's now dean of the Belmont University school of law. Judge Gonzales, thanks so much for talking with us.

GONZALES: Thanks for having me once again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.