Trump Is Still Losing His War With Jeff Sessions
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s most recent attack on Attorney General Jeff Sessions may soon be forgotten. The hearings over Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court could obscure it. So could some new Trump controversy — which Trump could spark, for all we know, with an even more scorching attack on Sessions. The president clearly believes in the power of repetition.
During the minutes we devote attention to this story, the focus is going to be on whether what Trump is saying is corrupt or even impeachable. Trump criticized “the Jeff Sessions Justice Department” for bringing charges against two Republican congressmen and thus putting their seats at risk of being won by Democrats in November.
According to Trump, who has previously complained that Sessions “never took control of the Justice Department,” the investigations were “long running, Obama-era” operations. One of them, the investigation over Republican Representative Chris Collins of New York, actually concerns insider trading that allegedly took place during the Trump administration.
But it’s worth taking an additional minute to appreciate the sheer weirdness of the Trump-Sessions feud. Trump appointed Sessions. He has the power to fire him at any time. Yet Trump has chosen instead to vent about him for month after month.
The longer you look, the more bizarre the situation Trump has created in his administration appears. Sessions fired off his own press release boasting that he took control of his department the day he took office. He is certainly in greater control of it than Trump is of his administration. Exhibit A for that contention: Trump’s angry labeling of “the Jeff Sessions Justice Department.”
Commenting on Trump and Sessions, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, “Every president deserves an attorney general they have confidence in.” Again: If the president has lost confidence in an attorney general, he can fire him and nominate a new one. (Even if that nominee does not get confirmed, the acting attorney general would be another Trump appointee — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to whom Trump has reportedly warmed.) Rather than fire Sessions, Trump took the decisive executive action of tweeting Graham’s quote.
What Graham said is correct as a generalization: The president and the attorney general should have a strong working relationship. Even today, though, Trump and Sessions appear to be in sync on almost all policy issues, from dealing with the opioid crisis to separating asylum seekers from their children. They may also line up together against a criminal-justice reform bill that influential congressional Republicans support.
Or maybe they don’t. It’s hard to tell, given Trump’s failure to make the minimal efforts needed to impose order on his administration. Trump has been lobbying senators to turn against Sessions (again, his own appointee, whom he can fire). According to Politico, Graham and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley are mad at Sessions for opposing the criminal-justice bill. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is annoyed over the same thing.
This, too, is peculiar. Sessions’s opposition hardly matters except insofar as he persuades President Trump to share it. Does he? Proponents of the bill say that Sessions is mischaracterizing Trump as an opponent. You know who could clear up President Trump’s position? President Trump.
If Graham means that every president deserves to have confidence that his attorney general will prosecute his political opponents and go easy on his allies — which everything Trump has said indicates is his view of what Sessions should be doing — then the South Carolina senator is, of course, gravely mistaken. Trump’s commentary tramples over norms that govern how presidents should interact with the Justice Department, norms that exist for reasons that appear to be lost on him.
Because Trump is asserting a higher degree of direct presidential control over law enforcement than we have had, there is a temptation to view him as an authoritarian strongman. But what Trump is displaying is the opposite of strength.
At best, he is trying to cajole members of his own party into being willing to confirm a new nominee to a top Cabinet post. At worst, he is trying to get them to pressure Sessions to resign because, “The Apprentice” aside, he shies away from actually firing people who work for him.
Either way, the president’s lashing out at Sessions is a sign of his weakness. For the attorney general, who did more than almost anyone to put Trump in the White House, working for him may be a condign punishment.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
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