There are two very significant things you can observe when reading this Washington Post piece by Sari Horwitz and Robert Costa on the broken relationship between the president and his attorney general. The first is that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is willing to be obsequious in an effort to keep his dream job, but only up to a point. When it comes to his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, he’s not willing to concede much to Donald Trump. Sure, he can understand why the president finds his decision frustrating, but…
“I’m confident I made the right decision, a decision that’s consistent for the rule of law,” Sessions said. “An attorney general who doesn’t follow the law is not very effective in leading the Department of Justice.”
…the president is angry with him for following the law. One day after the Post revealed that Sessions had met in his Senate office with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak and failed to disclose it during his confirmation hearing, and a mere three weeks after he was sworn in as attorney general, Sessions held a press conference at the Department of Justice and announced that “I have recused myself from matters that deal with the Trump campaign.” He explained that he was following the advice of Justice Department lawyers, and Trump is fuming mad about that. But imagine what it would have looked like if Sessions had ignored that advice. He would have invited a revolt by not only Congress, but also by the majority of people serving in the department he has just begun to lead. In particular, the FBI would have gone ape. It’s not unlikely that there would have mass resignations, and anyone trying to argue that Sessions wasn’t leading a cover-up of Trump’s actions and his own actions would have been left with no compelling rebuttal points.
Sessions admits as much. He’s saying that the president asked him to break the law and he’s sorry if his refusal to do so makes Trump angry but that’s just the way it had to be: “I serve at the pleasure of the president. If he wants to make a change, he can certainly do so, and I would be glad to yield in that circumstance, no doubt about it.”
The second significant thing you can observe in the piece is that Trump is now suffering from an age-old managerial problem. Those in positions of responsibility frequently find that their staff, for a variety of reasons, will seal them off from bad news down below or from hearing alternative points of view that are helpful in formulating policy. In this case, Jeff Sessions has some strong allies in the West Wing, including especially senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn (who was until recently a Senate aide to Sessions). But neither of them are willing to risk the Trump’s displeasure by advocating for Sessions directly to the president. Thus, the job of warning Trump off his plans to replace Sessions as attorney general has fallen to chief of staff Reince Priebus and White House counsel Donald F. McGahn. Since they aren’t personally close to Sessions, their advice can be seen as more neutral and more clearly as intended to be in the best interests of the president. Yet, even here, Priebus was constrained by worries about his own job security, and he was indeed fired late last week after the health care effort collapsed.
As a result, Trump isn’t getting as much internal pushback as he should on the political and legal perils of firing Jeff Sessions or moving him to another position in the cabinet. He may not realize just how seriously the Senate Republicans would take such an action, and he may not understand how it could help build a case for impeachment against him.
Let’s be frank. The president simply doesn’t have a normal human grasp of the concept of obstruction of justice nor of the principle of avoiding a conflict of interest. If he did, he wouldn’t be blasting Sessions for following the ethical and legal advice of Justice Department lawyers. He certainly wouldn’t be publicly admitting that he expected Sessions to obstruct justice and is furious that he did not. So, if anyone needs to be told hard truths from his staff, it’s Donald Trump.
Yet, his staff is afraid to explain these things or to explain them with enough force and repetition to be convincing.
Will John Kelly, the new chief of staff, have more success? Does Kelly understand these things and their perils, and is he willing to start off his new relationship with the president by taking him on on this issue?
I guess we will find out, but so far it looks like Trump is hellbent on doing Robert Mueller’s job for him and making a rock solid case for his own removal from office. He does not have any respect for the law and he wants everyone to know this in the most irrefutable way possible.
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