Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 13. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
This is not the normal way to fire a Cabinet officer.
President Trump is subjecting his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to repeated rounds of 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 that was essentially 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 Monday.
In case that wasn’t clear 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!”
When most presidents want a Cabinet official to resign, they send their chief of staff or other trusted aides to whisper in his or her ear. If that doesn’t do the trick, the aides leak to reporters, producing 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.
There are substantive lessons here.
The first and most obvious is that anyone who serves Trump should expect no loyalty, 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. He took real political risks to back 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.
The second lesson is that, to Trump, actual effectiveness in government doesn’t count for much — at least, compared with protecting the president from investigators. Sessions is actually responsible for a good share of what the administration has accomplished 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, that pales 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.
Is it fair to say that Trump wants to force Sessions to resign so he can name a more pliable attorney general — one who would follow an order to fire Mueller? Well, the president has made it clear that he’s after Mueller’s scalp. And the Washington Post reported Tuesday that some Trump associates already have 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 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. But he’s acting — relentlessly and recklessly — like a man with something to hide.