This is not the normal way to fire a Cabinet officer. President Trump is subjecting his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to public torture for failing to protect him from the investigation of his campaign’s apparent ties to Russia.
Last week, Trump told the New York Times that Sessions’ recusal from the investigation — a decision required by Justice Department rules — was “unfair” to the president who appointed him.
This week, Trump turned up the heat with a series of nasty tweets directed, amazingly, at a senior member of his own Cabinet.
“Why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?” the president demanded on Monday.
In case that wasn’t obvious enough, he escalated early Tuesday morning: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!”
And when reporters asked the president if he wanted Sessions to quit, Trump evaded the question three times. “Time will tell,” he said.
When most presidents want a Cabinet official to resign, they send their chief of staff or another trusted aide to whisper in his or her ear. If that doesn’t do the trick, aides leak to reporters, inducing stories that the president thinks it’s time for a change. (I was a conduit for one such leak in 1993, when Bill Clinton wanted Les Aspin to quit as Defense secretary.) Or they simply call the offending Cabinet officer to the Oval Office and deliver the bad news person-to-person. That’s how Barack Obama fired Chuck Hagel from the Pentagon in 2014.
Not Trump. He sends his Cabinet officers Twitter messages with the subtlety and finesse of a brick hurled through a plate-glass window.
This isn’t just a matter of style — of a “drain the swamp” president disrupting Washington’s prissy traditions. There are substantive lessons here, too.
The first and most obvious is that anyone who serves Trump should expect no loyalty from him, unless they’re family. Sessions was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump when the New York mogul’s candidacy still seemed like a nonsensical long shot. The Alabaman took a political risk by backing Trump; if another Republican had been elected president, Sessions would have been stranded in the political equivalent of Siberia. His reward, now, is public humiliation. (Republican senators: Think twice before risking your reputations to defend this man.)
The second lesson is that, to Trump, effectiveness in government doesn’t count for much compared to protecting the president from investigators. Sessions is responsible for a good share of what the administration has achieved in practical terms: its more aggressive prosecution of narcotics cases, its draconian crackdown on illegal immigration, its effort to defund so-called sanctuary cities.
But to the president, those accomplishments pale before the fact that Sessions allowed his deputy to name Robert S. Mueller III as a special counsel to investigate the Russia allegations, and that the Justice Department is allowing Mueller to forge ahead.
The third lesson is that Trump thinks the Justice Department should act as his personal law firm. That’s not new, but it’s still chilling.
As Jack Goldsmith, a former Justice Department official under George W. Bush, wrote in Lawfare on Tuesday, the president seems “bent on destroying the authority of the Justice Department that he worries, perhaps for reasons only he knows, may destroy him. At no time in modern history (and perhaps ever) has a President been so openly at odds, and bent on discrediting, his senior law enforcement and intelligence officials.”
Trump wants his attorney general to order the FBI to reopen its investigation of Hillary Clinton — not because he thinks she’s guilty of a crime (the FBI answered that question last year), but because it will strengthen his argument that whatever his campaign did was no worse than something hers must have done too.
(That, incidentally, is a 180-degree reversal of a position Trump took in November, when he said that prosecuting Clinton would be “very, very divisive for the country.” “It’s not something that I feel very strongly about,” he said then.)
Does Trump hope to harass Sessions into resigning so he can name a more pliable attorney general, one who would follow an order to fire Mueller? It sure looks that way. The president has made it clear that he’s after the special counsel’s scalp. And the Washington Post reported Tuesday that some Trump associates have already argued that the quickest way there is to name a new attorney general.
It all comes back to the Russia investigation. Trump rages at the media, Congress and now his own Justice Department for keeping it going. He’s already fired one acting attorney general, Sally Yates, and one FBI director, James B. Comey; now he appears ready to cashier one of his most loyal supporters and throw his Cabinet into chaos.
Trump insists that the controversy is groundless. And it’s true that conclusive evidence of direct collusion has not yet come to light. But the president is acting — relentlessly and recklessly — like a man with something to hide.
2:15 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.