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Jeff Sessions got a lot closer to being fired on Thursday

(CNN) For the last year, Republican senators have been adamant about one thing: President Donald Trump cannot and should not fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Here's what three Republican senators said in July 2017:

"I'm 100% behind Jeff Sessions," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said. "If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa made clear that if Sessions was fired, he would not be willing to hold hearings on any replacement put forward by Trump.

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby took to Twitter to praise Sessions as "a man of integrity, loyalty, and extraordinary character."

It made sense. Sessions was, after all, one of their own -- having served in the Senate for two decades before Trump nominated him to be the nation's top law enforcement official. The Senate is among the clubbiest places on earth and Trump's repeated attacks on Sessions -- on Twitter, in media interviews, everywhere -- didn't sit well with the Alabama senator's former colleagues. In a Republican Congress rarely willing to stand up to Trump, Sessions appeared to be the exception to the rule.

Except, well, maybe not.

Here's Lindsey Graham on Sessions on Thursday:

"The President's entitled to having an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that is qualified for the job and I think there will come a time sooner rather than later where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice. Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn't have the confidence of the President."

Er, what? What happened to the "holy hell"???

And, then there's Grassley -- you remember him, the one who said his committee simply had no time to consider any potential Sessions replacement for confirmation. "When we get [Supreme Court nominee Brett] Kavanaugh done we're going to have time — anything that's in my jurisdiction that the President sends up that we have to do," Grassley said Thursday. "But that's unrelated to any questions that people are floating around about Sessions right now. Because I wouldn't want to connect what I just told you about my having time with anything doing with Sessions."

Riiiight. Unrelated. Got it.

(Worth noting: Grassley has openly feuded with Sessions over the Iowa Republican's push for criminal justice reform. On Thursday, the White House announced that effort would be tabled until after the midterm elections.)

This is, without question, goalpost-moving by the Republican-controlled Senate. And it is goalpost moving without any obvious impetus. Sessions has done nothing -- aside from opposing moving on the criminal justice reform bill -- over the past year that would disqualify him in the eyes of his former colleagues. And it's not as though Trump was super positive about Sessions a year ago and has soured on him now. In fact, Graham's "holy hell to pay" quote came directly after one of Trump's many Twitter attacks on Sessions.

The point here is that's nothing changed in regards to Sessions and the President. Trump remains enraged that Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. He cannot and will not forgive his AG for that decision, which, in Trump's mind is responsible for the cloud that has hovered over his administration almost since its first moments. Sessions refuses -- even amid the neverending onslaught of Trump tweets -- to resign, essentially daring Trump to fire him.

The removal of Sessions -- whenever it comes -- is hugely fraught for Trump and Senate Republicans.

Republicans are currently trying to move Kavanaugh's confirmation through the Senate prior to the midterm elections -- to guard against the possibility that they lose the majority in November and can't get him confirmed in 2019. Democrats have protested but because of the changes in the filibuster rules first began by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, they have little recourse to stop Kavanaugh's ascension to the high court if all 51 Republicans vote for him.

The concern within Senate GOP ranks is that throwing an attorney general confirmation fight into that mix might severely complicate what they believe to be is the relative glide path that Kavanaugh is currently on.

"Do we really want to go through that kind of confirmation fight," Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Republican in leadership, told Politico on Thursday. "Is there anybody we can confirm?"

Firing Sessions would also ensure that the Russia investigation would be a major element of voters' calculations in November since Democrats would immediately seize on the removal of the AG as Trump's attempt to end the special counsel probe even as Robert Mueller appears to be creeping ever closer to Trump.

"There's no doubt he has some, some grievances," Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CNN in May of Trump and Sessions. "I don't know if they've aired them out yet, but he's not going to fire him before [the Mueller investigation] is over, nor do I think he should."

Graham appeared to pooh-pooh that thinking on Thursday, noting that there's very little timeline for when Mueller will release his final report on Russia's interference in the 2016 election. "Mueller is down the road," Graham said. "To those who believe that the only way that you can protect Mueller is to keep Jeff Sessions as attorney general forever — I don't buy it."

Those words from Graham have to chill Sessions. Because it seems as though Graham is talking about him in the past tense, and dismissing the one big reason why most people assumed Sessions would hang on.

No one better signaled the growing resignation in the Senate regarding Sessions' ultimate fate better than Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker.

"It's apparent that after the midterms, [Trump] will make a change and choose someone to do what he wants done," Corker told Politico. "It just feels to me that after the midterms, the president will make the change ... We are in a sad place in our country's history."

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