Time after time in the early months of the Trump presidency, Jody Hunt was in the room where things happened.
As chief of staff to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Hunt held a front-row seat to President Donald Trump’s early clashes with the Justice Department, witnessing dramatic moments including the president’s initial reaction to the appointment of a special counsel, Robert Mueller III, to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
Two years later, Hunt, now the Senate-confirmed head of the Justice Department’s civil division, featured prominently in the footnotes of Mueller’s report on the two-year investigation—a probe that uncovered no evidence of Trump’s campaign coordinating with the Kremlin but resulted in the prosecution of several past aides to the president.
Indeed, his contemporaneous notes and responses to investigators were cited in portions of the report that painted some of the most colorful moments of Trump grappling with an investigation that cast a cloud on his presidency. Among those moments: Trump slumping in his chair and declaring, “I’m fucked,” upon hearing that the deputy attorney general had appointed a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation.
Also, his notes and recollections documented some of the harshest haranguing Trump directed at an attorney general whose recusal from that probe amounted—in the president’s eyes, at least—to an abandonment. It was from Hunt, according to Mueller’s report, that the special counsel learned that Sessions carried a resignation letter in his pocket every time he visited the White House as the president increasingly subjected him to public opprobrium.
The Justice Department declined to comment Thursday.
>> “This is terrible, Jeff.”
On May 3, 2017, then-FBI Director James Comey appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for an oversight hearing. The event had been on Trump’s mind.
Leading up to the testimony, Trump told advisers he wanted Comey to publicly state he was not personally under investigation. And in the week leading up to the hearing, Trump reportedly said it would be the last straw if Comey declined an opportunity to make that announcement, the Mueller report stated, citing the recollections of former White House counsel Donald McGahn.
The afternoon after Comey’s hearing, Hunt was in a meeting with Trump, Sessions and McGahn. Trump asked how Comey had done, and McGahn relayed that the FBI director had declined to answer questions about whether the president was under investigation.
Hunt’s notes documented Trump’s immediate ire.
“This is terrible Jeff. It’s all because you recused. AG is supposed to be the most important appointment. Kennedy appointed his brother. Obama appointed Holder,” Trump was quoted as saying, referring to Eric Holder, now a partner at Covington & Burling. “I appointed you and you recused yourself. You left me on an island. I can’t do anything.”
As Sessions defended himself, saying the recusal was a mandatory rather than discretionary action, the attorney general eventually shifted the talk to the FBI. “Hunt recalled that Sessions also stated at some point during the conversation that a new start at the FBI would be appropriate and the president should consider replacing Comey as the FBI director,” the Mueller report states.
>> Something’s “not right.”
On May 8, 2017, Hunt attended a meeting with Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in which McGahn revealed that Trump had decided to fire Comey. Hours later, Hunt was with Trump when the president said he’d watched the congressional testimony over the weekend and determined something was “not right” with Comey. “Hunt, who was in the room, recalled that Sessions responded that he had previously recommended that Comey be replaced,” the Mueller report states. Comey was fired the next day.
>> “This is the end of my presidency.”
On May 17, Hunt was with Sessions, Trump and McGahn as they conducted interviews for a new FBI director when the attorney general stepped out to take a call from Rosenstein. Returning to the room, Sessions shared that Rosenstein had appointed a special counsel.
“According to notes written by Hunt,” the Mueller report states, Trump slumped in his chair. “Oh my God,” Trump said, according to Hunt’s notes. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”
Drawing from Hunt’s notes and Sessions’ recollection, Mueller’s team further documented Trump’s rage. “How could you let this happen, Jeff?”
“Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency. It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Trump reportedly said.
Trump told Sessions he should resign. Sessions agreed to submit a resignation letter and, accompanied by Hunt, handed it to Trump the next day. Trump said he wanted Sessions to stay on—but he kept the resignation letter.
>> A resignation letter at the ready.
Trump’s public denunciations of Sessions would not cease. In July 2017, Trump criticized Sessions in tweets for neglecting to investigate Hillary Clinton and, the next day, questioned why his attorney general had not replaced then-acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
“According to Hunt,” Mueller’s office wrote in the report, “in light of the president’s frequent public attacks, Sessions prepared another resignation letter and for the rest of the year carried it with him in his pocket every time he went to the White House.”