Donald Trump Turns Against Jeff Sessions, Big League
The cumulative weight of the juvenile grievances, diversions, lies, and ineptitude of the current Administration has often meant that anyone who has gone out on a limb for Donald Trump has, shortly thereafter, heard the sound of a branch cracking behind him. Sean Spicer, the former press secretary, who left the White House last week, began his term by asking reporters to believe what he told them about the size of Trump’s Inauguration crowds rather than their own lying eyes. Spicer’s credibility, not to mention his personal dignity, was the most immediate casualty of his association with the President, and neither can be expected to make a speedy recovery. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who so far has been spared the kind of public humiliation visited on Spicer, has been sidelined in various diplomatic dealings. The national-security adviser H. R. McMaster, for his part, has been consistently brushed aside in his efforts to reassure America’s allies about the Administration’s commitment to NATO. There is no one currently in close association with Donald Trump who has fared better, for that fact.
Against this backdrop, the friction between Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions looks less like the random venting of an intemperate, undisciplined President and more like something that could have been predicted almost from the moment that Sessions became the first senator to endorse Trump during the primaries. Today, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that the endorsement was “not like a great loyal thing.” But the latest trouble started last week, with Trump’s alarming interview with the Times, in which he assailed his Attorney General for having recused himself from the investigation into possible Russian interference with the 2016 election: “If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else.” After that backhanding, Sessions quietly stated that he would nonetheless remain in his position as long as it was “appropriate.”
Then, on Saturday morning, Trump said, on Twitter, that “people are asking” why Sessions and the special counsel, Robert Mueller, were not “looking at the many Hillary Clinton or Comey crimes”—a reference to the former F.B.I. director James Comey, whom Trump fired to stop investigations into possible crimes. On Monday morning came another dispatch, in which Trump referred to Sessions as “beleaguered,” and asked again why he wasn’t “looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes.” Later in the day, when a reporter asked the President, during a photo sessions with White House interns, whether Sessions should resign, he rolled his eyes. This morning, in what is beginning to look like a compulsion, Trump once more attacked Sessions for taking a “VERY weak position” on investigating Clinton. According to the Washington Post, Trump’s team is now weighing the possibility of an August recess appointment to replace Sessions. Rudolph Giuliani and Ted Cruz have been mentioned as possible nominees, though Giuliani has previously stated that Sessions was right to recuse himself from the investigation.
One possibility is that Trump is waging a campaign to drive Sessions out, and so avoid the Nixonian fallout of a Saturday Night Massacre moment. In an interview with Lester Holt, Trump undermined Sessions’s rationale for firing Comey—that Comey had mishandled the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails—by stating flat-out that he removed Comey to in order to quell the investigation. Should Sessions go, he will be the third figure from the Justice Department, following Sally Yates and Comey, whom Trump has gotten rid of for reasons that appear to include frustration with the Russia investigation. Yet Sessions, who has given conflicting and incomplete answers about his contacts with the Russians, had good reason to recuse himself. Sessions reportedly offered his resignation to Trump months ago, after the White House first made its displeasure with his recusal known. The recusal marks the minimal adherence to ethical standards of government, so the fact that it ignited the President’s conflict with Sessions suggests that Trump does not have a zero-tolerance policy for ethical violations; rather, he has a zero-tolerance policy for ethics. Accountability and propriety are foreign to his understanding of the world.
There’s a particular irony to this twist in the tangled plot of Trump’s Presidency. Unlike some of the more mercenary figures who surround Trump, Sessions appears to be a MAGA true believer, a subscriber to the fact-optional, backward-looking nostalgiacracy that Trump has attempted to conjure since he announced his campaign. Last year, Trump’s claims about a nation besieged by crime were often dismissed as campaign rhetoric—demagogic rhetoric, to be sure, but electioneering nonetheless. It is far more dangerous when the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer makes similar statements, in open defiance of statistical evidence. Sessions’s tenure in office has already wrecked burgeoning bipartisan efforts at criminal-justice reform, and he has set about trying to resurrect the moribund war on drugs and instructed prosecutors to pursue the most serious charge in every case. The old guidelines hold that one must avoid both ethical conflicts and the appearance of ethical conflicts. In Sessions’s case, it was his concern for appearances that set the President’s fingers to tweeting about his “beleaguered” appointee, whose days in the Administration are likely numbered.