WASHINGTON — President Trump’s staff is used to his complaints about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but the Republican senators who attended a White House dinner on Monday were stunned to hear him criticize the man who was once Mr. Trump’s most loyal supporter in the Senate.
It turned out to be a preview of even more cutting remarks Mr. Trump would make two days later in an interview with The New York Times: an extraordinary public expression of dissatisfaction with one of his top aides based on Mr. Sessions’s decision in March to recuse himself from the expanding federal investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
Despite Mr. Trump’s avowal in the interview that he would not have picked Mr. Sessions if he had known he would recuse himself, Mr. Sessions said on Thursday that he intended to serve “as long as that is appropriate.” And a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tried to moderate her boss’s remarks, telling reporters later, “Clearly, he has confidence in him, or he would not be the attorney general.”
But even if Mr. Sessions remains in his job, the relationship between him and Mr. Trump — the Alabama lawyer and the Queens real estate developer, an odd couple bound by a shared conviction that illegal immigration is destroying America — is unlikely to ever be the same, according to a half-dozen people close to Mr. Trump. And this is not the typical Trump administration feud.
The two men, divided by temperament, culture and geography, became surprisingly close in 2016, with Mr. Trump showing uncharacteristic deference toward Mr. Sessions, a Southern senator whose support he valued deeply.
Mr. Sessions was the president’s first cabinet appointment. As attorney general, he has taken on as broad a policy purview as any member of the cabinet, with an ambitious law-and-order agenda — much admired by conservatives — that is focused on ending illegal immigration, attacking urban crime and restarting the Republican Party’s 30-year-old devotion to a “war on drugs.” Two of Mr. Sessions’s aides, Stephen Miller and Rick Dearborn, worked on the Trump campaign and have key roles in the White House.
But for Mr. Trump, preoccupied by investigations that he believes are unfairly aimed at him, Mr. Sessions’s decision seems impossible to forgive. “Everything that is happening was triggered by Sessions’s recusal,” said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump political adviser whose own activities are being scrutinized by investigators.
Mr. Stone listed a chain of events Mr. Trump often ticks off against Mr. Sessions: Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein took over the Russia investigation after Mr. Sessions’s recusal, which led to the appointment of Robert S. Mueller III, a former F.B.I. director, as special counsel, which, in turn, led to irrepressible presidential rage.
“The president initially bonded with Sessions because he saw him as a tough guy,” said Mr. Stone, who has urged Mr. Sessions to investigate Obama-era officials instead of Trump campaign operatives. “Now he’s saying: ‘Where’s my tough guy? Why doesn’t he have my back?’”
“There’s a lack of aggressiveness with Sessions, unless it involves chasing people for smoking pot,” he added, referring to the attorney general’s recent focus on marijuana offenses largely ignored under President Barack Obama.
But Mr. Sessions was there during some of Mr. Trump’s lowest moments.
He was the first senator to back Mr. Trump, lending some credibility to a candidate whom many in the party viewed as either a joke or a menace. When an audiotape became public of Mr. Trump talking to an “Access Hollywood” host in explicit terms about grabbing women, and Reince Priebus, then the Republican National Committee chairman, suggested that Mr. Trump drop out of the race, he urged Mr. Priebus to wait and see how things played out.
People close to Mr. Trump are not sure if his remarks signaled an intention to fire Mr. Sessions, or were meant to coax him into a forced resignation, or were just the president’s attempt to let off a plume of public rage — or all three at once.Months ago, Mr. Trump mused to his family members in the White House and to other advisers that if he fired Mr. Sessions, and Mr. Rosenstein became acting attorney general, Mr. Rosenstein would have to recuse himself from the investigation because he had written a letter recommending the firing of James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director. That way, Mr. Trump would be able to push through a new attorney general fairly quickly.
But in recent weeks, Mr. Trump has become more aware of how hard it could be, given the investigations, to win Senate confirmation of a new attorney general, especially one who possesses the iron loyalty the president demands of Mr. Sessions.
Former colleagues expressed sympathy for Mr. Sessions on Thursday for having to deal with the mercurial Mr. Trump. And they expressed doubt that Mr. Sessions, a legislative loner who represented the far right wing of the Republican conference, would quit his job, which he views as personal vindication for the Senate’s refusal to confirm him to a federal judgeship in 1986.
“Watching Senator Sessions for the six years we served together, he never seemed particularly taken aback by anybody criticizing a position he took or a position that was uniquely his,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri. “He was often the only voice on an issue and had no problem being the only voice.”
But Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who served on the Judiciary Committee with Mr. Sessions, questioned how Mr. Sessions could continue in his job after the president undermined him.
“If there was ever a clear vote of no confidence by a president in his attorney general, it was the New York Times interview,” Mr. Durbin said. “I don’t see how he can continue in this critical role in this administration.”
Mr. Durbin said he believed Mr. Sessions had made a new assessment on the Russia investigation when he took over the Justice Department and realized that he had to recuse himself given questions about his failure to disclose his own contacts with Russian officials.
“For his own reputation and for his name, he stepped aside,” Mr. Durbin said. “The president didn’t hire him to step aside.”
Mr. Sessions has fretted about being frozen out by Mr. Trump, and their interactions have been clipped and businesslike recently, according to a senior administration official close to both men. But on Thursday, he vowed to soldier on.
In his five months as the nation’s top law enforcement official, Mr. Sessions has made a notable mark on the Justice Department, rolling back some of the Obama administration’s signature policies while emphasizing his own agenda.
He has directed federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences in all criminal cases, overriding guidance from former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who sought to ease penalties for some nonviolent drug offenses and reduce the harsh prison sentences such crimes can automatically bring.
This week, Mr. Sessions revived another controversial policy, further empowering the police to seize the personal property of people suspected of crimes but not charged, a practice many states have restricted.
“We are serving right now. The work we are doing today is the kind of work that we intend to continue,” he said at a news conference announcing what he described as the dismantling of an online operation that sold narcotics and other illicit goods.
“I am totally confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way,” he added.