President Trump's continued criticisms of Attorney General Jeff Sessions are beginning to cause a split among conservative media figures who had largely backed him during his first six months in office.
On Tuesday, Trump turned up the heat on Sessions, calling him out along with acting FBI chief Andrew McCabe in a series of early-morning tweets for not pursuing "Hillary Clinton crimes."
Trump's comments came after the president took repeated swipes at Sessions on Monday, referring to him as "our beleaguered A.G." and wondering why he wasn't "looking into Crooked Hillary's crimes & Russia relations?"
Trump has ratcheted up his attacks in recent days after revealing in a New York Times interview that he would not have chosen Sessions as his attorney general if had known that Sessions would recuse himself from all investigations into Russian meddling during the 2016 campaign. According to my colleague Chris Mondics, any move to replace Sessions "surely will be part of a larger effort to rein in independent counsel Mueller, if not get rid of him altogether."
The Associated Press reported that firing Sessions could "raise the specter" of Trump asking Sessions' appointed replacement to fire Robert Muller, the former FBI director and special counsel who is investigating Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.
"Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else," Trump said, calling Sessions' decision "very unfair."
Sessions is popular among Trump's conservative base and is one of the president's most loyal backers. He was among the first establishment Republicans to support Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, whose popular syndicated show is broadcast daily on 1210 WPHT, defended Sessions as a "by-the-book" attorney general and legal mind, and said Trump's continued swipes at him are "unseemly."
"It's also a little bit discomforting, unseemly, for Trump to go after such a loyal supporter this way," Limbaugh said on his radio show Monday, noting that Sessions has made it clear he doesn't intend to resign.
"After Trump gave him the invitation to quit, Sessions doubled down on how much he loves the job, how much he's going to continue to love the job, how he's gonna keep performing the job while appropriate," Limbaugh said.
The opinions of conservative media figures like Limbaugh carry weight with Trump, who is keenly aware of the outsize role they have in molding opinions among his conservative base. It's such an important consideration that Trump has reportedly asked his advisers how firing Sessions "would play in the conservative media," according to the Washington Post.
Limbaugh isn't the only prominent Trump supporter who has come to Sessions' defense. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a strong ally of the president and a frequent guest on Fox News, said he would "strongly oppose" the firing of Sessions due to his support among Trump's base.
"His base thinks that on things like [violent street gangs] and sanctuary cities that Sessions is doing a fine job, and I think his base would be confused," Gingrich said, adding that Trump's comments alone could have serious repercussions for his entire White House staff.
"Anybody who is good at team building would suggest to the president that attacking members of your team rattles the whole team," Gingrich said.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson joined other conservative media figures in defending Sessions, calling Trump's actions a "useless, self-destructive act" and said the president's repeated attacks are a "worrisome sign the president may be forgetting who is on his side."
"Pay less attention to The New York Times and more to Matt Drudge," Carlson suggested. "Lay off Jeff Sessions. He's your friend."
On the other hand, some conservative media figures continue to back the president in his fight with Sessions.
"Donald Trump is a fighter, and he wants people who are on his team who are fighters as well," said Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy. "He doesn't want somebody who's got to fold before they can fight."
Fox News host Eric Bolling, among the president's most ardent backers on cable news, lashed out at Sessions on Monday for recusing himself, suggesting that he might have done so in an attempt to ask for immunity.
"You can cut a deal," Bolling said. "I'll recuse myself, but guess what, I get immunity."
Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump's most vocal backer on cable news, complained about Sessions not investigating Hillary Clinton
"I don't know where Jeff Sessions is, maybe something's happening that we don't know about," Hannity said on his radio show, frustrated about Sessions' apparent lack of interest in investigating reports that Ukrainian officials helped research connections between former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Russia for the DNC to help Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
"I'm like, OK, we have a new attorney general, statute of limitations have not gone anywhere," Hannity added. "Why isn't this woman being investigated?"
Underscoring the importance of support from conservative media figures like Hannity, Trump tagged the Fox News host in a separate Tuesday morning tweet where the president complained about the lack of interest in investigating Clinton.