Trump’s war with his Justice Department: Just his latest with major institutions and alliances
It would be hard to find someone more loyal to President Trump than Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.
He was the first senator to grab a cherry-red “Make America Great Again” cap and endorse Trump for president, when few in Washington took Trump seriously. Now Sessions is perhaps the most zealous member of the president’s Cabinet, pressing his nationalistic agenda of tougher policies on crime and immigration.
Yet this week Trump all but declared war with Sessions for having recused himself from the Russia election-meddling investigation, as well as with nearly every top official at the Justice Department. In an interview Wednesday with the New York Times, the president said he regretted having chosen Sessions and once again raised the possibility of firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — a move that he could more easily accomplish if Sessions were out as attorney general.
Trump has shown repeatedly that he thrives on such fights with allies and enemies alike — to bend them to his will, to enforce loyalty or, failing that, to strike back.
As much as any development to date, however, Trump’s remarks — by their harshness and their targets — reinforced the sense that no person close to the president is safe, even if the attack might appear to undermine the president as much as the object of his anger.
Sessions and White House aides sought to smooth over the controversy Thursday, with the attorney general insisting that he planned to remain on the job and a White House spokesperson saying he retains the president’s confidence.
In a telephone interview, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, expressed a widespread view that Trump disregards the law enforcement agencies’ essential independence.
“It certainly appears the president doesn’t understand the system of checks and balances that retains a strong measure of independence [for] the Justice Department,” Schiff said.
The Justice Department officials join a long list of Trump targets. As an anti-establishment candidate and now as president for just six months as of Thursday, he has taken on an array of major institutions and alliances here and internationally — his own Republican Party and its leaders, the national media, the entire American intelligence community, numerous trading partners, the 70-year-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization and now the nation’s top law enforcement agency.
Trump has repeatedly called the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the U.S. election a “hoax” and the federal investigation a “witch hunt.” Even senior administration officials have been unnerved by Trump’s willingness to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including an undisclosed solo conversation at the recent Group of 20 summit in Germany, at a time when Russia continues to undermine U.S. interests in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
At the same time, he has alienated allies by abruptly withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and a trade pact of Pacific Rim nations, and by criticizing NATO and other longstanding multinational organizations. This week he subtly threatened a vulnerable Republican senator, Dean Heller of Nevada, with defeat if Heller didn’t support the Senate healthcare bill. And news that Sen. John McCain has brain cancer had many in Washington recalling that Trump still hasn’t apologized to the Arizona Republican for denying during the campaign that McCain is a war hero.
“There are no one-offs with our current president,” said Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer. “It’s all completely consistent. It’s always all about him. It’s always all about how is he going to win and do that whatever it is, do whatever it takes.”
Republicans in Congress were relatively muted but Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah told CNN that Trump’s comments about Sessions may come back to “haunt him.” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine warned that firing Mueller would be “catastrophic.”
Democrats’ leader, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, taunted Republicans on Twitter: “Two words to @SenateGOP when @realDonald Trump says ‘I’ll have your back’ when you vote to repeal health care: Jeff Sessions.”
Trump told the New York Times he would have “picked somebody else” if he had known Sessions would decide to recuse himself from the FBI’s investigation into what role the Trump campaign played in Russia’s attempt to influence the election.
“How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you,’” Trump said. “It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”
Sessions insisted he will remain in the job.
“We love this job, we love this department, and we plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate,” Sessions said, standing next to Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe — both of whom were also the subjects of Trump’s jibes — during a news conference about a cybercrime case.
Trump’s public disparagement of Sessions will make it hard for the attorney general to effectively lead the department, said William Yeomans, who served at Justice for 26 years.
“He is among the walking wounded. He’s been cut off at the knees in public,” Yeomans said.
As for Rosenstein, the acting attorney general for the Russia investigations, Trump questioned his Republican credentials since he had been the top federal prosecutor in Baltimore, which the president dismissed as a Democratic stronghold.
Rosenstein told reporters on Thursday, “I was proud to be here yesterday. I’m proud to be here today. I’ll be proud to work here tomorrow.”
It was Trump’s handling of his firing of former FBI Director James B. Comey that is widely believed to have made him a subject of Mueller’s investigation, for potential obstruction of justice. Yet despite his own possible legal problems, Trump had no lawyers in the Oval Office for the interview in which he attacked the prosecutors, only one longtime aide.
Trump said that Mueller would cross a “red line” if he investigated Trump’s businesses and finances. Rosenstein currently oversees Mueller because Sessions recused himself in March after it was reported that he had failed to reveal two meetings last year with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.
If Sessions were replaced at the top of the Justice Department, a new attorney general would take over from Rosenstein and manage the special counsel. Although Trump would pick Sessions’ replacement, that person would require Senate confirmation, and independence from the president would be a main line of questioning.
Sanders, Trump’s spokeswoman, told reporters, “He was disappointed in Atty. Gen. Sessions’ decision to recuse himself but clearly he has confidence in him or he would not be the attorney general.”
To a question about whether Trump believes Sessions serves the Constitution or the president, Sanders said, “Obviously the attorney general’s job is to follow and uphold the Constitution, but also every member of the Cabinet and the administration serves at the pleasure of the president.”
John A. Farrell, author of “Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full,” sees a parallel with Nixon in Trump’s concern that the Russia investigation could expand into other aspects of his and his family’s business dealings. Nixon’s anger with Archibald Cox — the special prosecutor who expanded Watergate to include financial issues related to Nixon and his inner circle — led to his firing Cox. That was a threshold moment in Nixon’s undoing.
For Trump to fire Sessions and Mueller “would be a bridge too far” for many in Congress, Farrell said. But, he added, “he’s blown the doors off so many conventions that it’s quite possible he could even get away with it.”
Times staff writer Joseph Tanfani in Washington contributed to this report.
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