The agony of Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been attacked and belittled by President Donald Trump more than Vladimir Putin has.
Trump has had rough patches with most of his top officials at one point or another, but there is a particular poignancy in his humiliating treatment of his own attorney general, who got on board the Trump Train early and supports the president’s policy instincts as much as anyone.
But Sessions is not personally loyal, at least not in the way Trump expects, and so the man who looked past Trump’s erratic temperament when he decided to support him now routinely feels the brunt of it.
There are many ways for a president to communicate with his attorney general. He could make a phone call. He could have him over to the White House for a dressing-down. He could send an emissary to the Justice Department. Instead, Trump bangs on Sessions in public, the only purpose of which seems to be venting his own spleen and personally discomfiting Sessions as much as possible.
This is assuredly the first time a president has ever trolled his own attorney general on Twitter. It’s another example of how Trump, bizarrely, often treats his administration as something he has no authority over, except insofar as he has commenting privileges.
For Sessions, a dignified man who would never treat anyone else the way the president treats him, it has to be painful, and all the more so because of the irony of it.
Just a few short years ago, Sessions was the odd man out in the U.S. Senate. He fought rearguard actions on immigration (successfully), inveighed against free-trade orthodoxy and argued the GOP should be a party of workers when few were inclined to listen.
Endorsing Trump was a crazy gambit to effect a revolution in the party, and it worked. You would have expected Sessions to be the ideological conscience of the administration and a close partner of the president, the Ed Meese of the Trump administration.
Instead, he is assiduously at work implementing the Trump agenda and gets beaten about the head and shoulders for his trouble.
Sessions’ recusal in the Russian investigation set in motion events leading to the appointment of Robert Mueller, and Trump will probably never forgive him. He considers his attorney general weak and disloyal on the one question that matters most to him — protection of himself and his family.
His anger toward Sessions isn’t leavened with institutional knowledge, hence his strange blast at Sessions over the fact that, appropriately, the DOJ inspector general is going to look at allegations of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act abuse. Sessions felt compelled to push back against the president in a public statement, and yet again, the civics textbooks will have to be revised to account for how government works in the Trump era.
We have all gotten used to it, but if you take a step back, that Trump as president would attack his Cabinet officials via Twitter would have seemed one of the more lurid fears of his critics before he was elected. But here we are.
The ongoing spat with Sessions is another reason the administration gives off a sense of teetering on the edge of a crisis, not because of exogenous events (we’re experiencing peace and prosperity), but because of the ultimate endogenous factor — the president of the United States, without whom the administration wouldn’t exist in the first place.
If Trump were to fire Sessions, which seems unlikely, or to eventually push him over the edge into quitting, he probably wouldn’t be able to get another attorney general confirmed. Who would be acceptable both to Trump, who wants more personal loyalty, and to the Senate, which isn’t going to approve a crony? And what graybeard with independent credibility would sign up to serve?
So, Sessions isn’t going anywhere. Whether the attorney general considers that a reprieve or a punishment, only he knows.