Attorney General Jeff Sessions stands by his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation despite the barrage of criticism he has received publicly from the president this week, he said.
"I talked to experts in the Department of Justice, people trained in that. I am confident I made the right decision, the decision that is consistent by rule of law," Sessions told Fox News' Tucker Carlson in an interview that aired Thursday night from El Salvador, where Sessions is meeting with officials to discuss violence and the gang MS-13.
"An attorney general who doesn't follow the law is not very effective in leading the Department of Justice," Sessions said.
Sessions also acknowledged the president's frustration."I understand his feelings about it because this has been a big distraction for him," he said.
While President Trump's criticism of him is "hurtful," he said, he appreciates that the president has the country's best interests in mind.
"Well, um, it's kind of hurtful," Sessions told Carlson."But the president of the United States is a strong leader," Sessions said. "He is determined to move this country in the direction he believes it needs to go to make us great again. He's had a lot of criticisms and he's steadfastly determined to get his job done and he wants all of us to do our jobs. And that's what I intend to do."
Sessions also responded to Trump's assertions that he has been "weak" in prosecuting leaks from the intelligence community-- something the president tweeted about days ago.
Compared to this time last year, Sessions said, the department has already surpassed prosecutions related to leaks. "We are stepping up those cases, it cannot continue. People need to go to jail. If we can make cases, they are going to jail," Sessions said.
"The president has every right to ask the Department of Justice to be more aggressive in that," Sessions said.
Sessions also spoke to The Associated Press while in El Salvador.
"I serve at the pleasure of the president. I've understood that from the day I took the job,' he said.
Sessions told The AP he would stay on as long as the president allowed him, maintaining his initial response to the first tweets at the beginning of the week.
This week has not been the “best” for him and the president, Sessions acknowledged, but in spite of the barbs, Sessions told The AP that he and the president have a "harmony of values and beliefs."
Sessions, one of the first to endorse Trump during the campaign, was confirmed attorney general in February. About a month later, as the investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia got under way, attorneys at the Department of Justice suggested Sessions recuse himself from the probe because he played an integral role in the campaign as a surrogate. Sessions recused himself in March.
The first shot across the bow for Sessions came in a July 19 interview with the New York Times interview that highlighted the president’s frustration over Sessions’ recusal. “If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president’,” Trump told the Times.
Since then, Trump has fired out tweets relaying his dismay with Sessions multiple times and commented on the “unfairness” of his recusal in a joint press conference from the Rose Garden.
In his first tweet, he called Sessions “beleaguered.” Soon after, he tweeted that Sessions was “VERY weak” in his position on a multitude of issues, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s deleted e-mails, an investigation into the DNC server from the summer and leaks coming from the intelligence community.
Push back from conservatives has been steadfast and largely in defense of Sessions, who served as a senator for 20 years.
Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he believes Sessions “is doing a fine job” as attorney general and “made the right decision” in recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, alerted Washington, D.C. on Twitter that even if the president wants Sessions gone, there’s no room in the 2017 schedule to approve a new attorney general. “AG no way,” Grassley tweeted.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham went further. Not only will there be no confirmation for an attorney general in 2017, but “if Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay,” he said. “Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency, unless Mueller did something wrong.”