By Doina Chiacu and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired back at President Donald Trump on Thursday after Trump gave a scathing assessment of his leadership at the Justice Department.
Sessions, a former U.S. senator from Alabama, was one of the first Republican lawmakers to back Trump's presidential election bid and has implemented his hardline immigration policies in the role of attorney general.
But Trump has repeatedly criticised Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing a probe into Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump's campaign colluded with Moscow. Trump denies any collusion and calls the investigation a "witch hunt."
"I put in an attorney general who never took control of the Justice Department," Trump said in a Fox News interview that aired on Thursday. "He took the job and then he said: 'I'm going to recuse myself.' ... I said, 'What kind of a man is this?'"
In a rare rebuttal to Trump, Sessions quickly moved to defend himself.
"I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in," Sessions said in a statement. "While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."
The response sparked new speculation that Trump might fire Sessions, although some senior Republican lawmakers offered the attorney general support.
"I know this is a difficult position for him to be in, but I think it would be bad for the country, it would be bad for the president, it would be bad for the Department of Justice for him to be forced out under these circumstances," said Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican.
Senator Lindsey Graham, who is both close to Trump and a defender of Sessions, said he believed Trump would appoint a new attorney general but should wait until after Nov. 6 congressional elections, in which Republicans are seeking to maintain control of both the House of Representatives and Senate.
The public spat between Sessions and the president came two days after Trump's former election campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted on tax and bank fraud charges, and Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges.
Cohen also said Trump directed him to pay off two women who said they had affairs with Trump, payments that prosecutors say were in violation of campaign finance laws.
'ALMOST OUGHT TO BE ILLEGAL'
Under pressure over the Cohen and Manafort cases, Trump has renewed his criticism of Sessions and reprised his complaints about the Justice Department and the FBI, accusing them without providing evidence of treating him and his supporters unfairly.
In the interview with Fox News, Trump also criticized the widely used tactic of prosecutors offering lighter charges in criminal cases in return for information and testimony against others.
"It is called flipping and it almost ought to be illegal," Trump said.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Trump had discussed with his lawyers a possible pardon for Manafort but had been persuaded to wait until after the November elections.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll showed a slight drop in support among Republicans for Trump following the Manafort conviction and the Cohen plea.
The poll, conducted from Tuesday evening to Thursday, found that 78 percent of Republicans approved of Trump, down from 81 percent in a seven-day poll that ended on Monday.
Overall, 37 percent of adults said they approved of Trump’s performance in office - down from 43 percent in the earlier poll.
Trump’s approval numbers have been relatively stable since he took office in January 2017, when compared with his predecessors, and his popularity has not wavered much among Republicans.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online in English throughout the United States. It gathered responses from 1,688 American adults, including 704 Democrats and 587 Republicans. It had a credibility interval, a measure of the poll’s precision, of 3 percentage points for the entire sample, 4 points for the Democrats and 5 points for the Republicans.
(Indictments, convictions and pleas, https://tmsnrt.rs/2wcFMdx)
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Chris Kahn, Patricia Zengerle and Makini Brice; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Bill Trott, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)