THE MORNING PLUM:
Jeff Sessions has now been confirmed as attorney general, and this vaults him to a position in American life that is unique. Perhaps more than any other person, Sessions stands at the nexus of many of the potential plot lines that we should fear most about the Donald Trump presidency.
Here are the possibilities we need to worry about. President Trump’s refusal to divest from his business holdings creates the possibility of untold conflicts of interest and even full-blown corruption on an unprecedented scale. The hostility of Trump and Republicans to a full, independent probe into Russian meddling in the election may mean there will never be a full public accounting of what happened, which could make a repeat more likely.
Trump’s year of lies about voter fraud, and his campaign vows of explicit persecution of minorities, could signal further voter suppression efforts, weakened civil rights protections, and the use of state power against Muslims and undocumented immigrants in draconian or discriminatory ways. Trump’s well-documented authoritarian impulses could conceivably tip him into genuine authoritarian rule, in which, for instance, the power of the state is turned against critics or political opponents.
Sessions is now in a unique position to facilitate and enable — or, by contrast, to act as a legal check on — some or all of these possibilities, should they metastasize (or metastasize further) into serious threats to vulnerable minorities or, more broadly, to our democracy. Here are the things to fear:
1) Sessions’s loyalty to Trump. Stephen Bannon has said: “Throughout the campaign, Sessions has been the fiercest, most dedicated, and most loyal promoter in Congress of Trump’s agenda.” The question is what this will loyalty will mean for the new attorney general’s independence from the Trump White House.
The Post notes Thursday that Sessions has “repeatedly declined to say whether he would recuse himself from an investigation” that involves Trump campaign associates and Russian electoral interference. How Sessions will handle the specter of Trump corruption is also a big unknown.
2) The possibility of more voter suppression efforts and weakened civil rights protections. If Trump does join with congressional Republicans to push more voter suppression efforts on the national level, the attorney general might be at the center of that. The Justice Department could refuse to enforce key remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act, or launch crackdowns on voter fraud that are designed to purge voter rolls, harming real voters.
Meanwhile, it will bear watching whether the Sessions Justice Department guts the department’s Civil Rights Division or scales back the department’s focus on police misconduct. Civil rights groups are already alarmed by the Trump Justice Department’s decision to delay cases involving a challenge to a Texas voter-ID law and a push to reform the Baltimore Police Department.
3) Crackdowns on Muslims, undocumented immigrants and even critics. The Trump Justice Department is already aggressively defending Trump’s immigration ban in court. The discriminatory intent of this seems obvious already. But if it were to be extended and expanded to more Muslim-majority countries, the Justice Department would then be clearly defending what is, in effect, a Muslim ban. What’s more, the Justice Department might have a hand in a revived registry for people from Muslim-majority countries, which remains possible. And Justice Department lawyers will also opine on the legality of any other policies that might target Muslims.
Meanwhile, Sessions is an ardent opponent of reasonable immigration reforms that would create paths to legalization for undocumented immigrants and favors restrictions on legal immigration as well. Sessions is expected to lead Trump’s charge against “sanctuary cities” that decline to cooperate with federal deportation efforts, and there are multiple other ways in which Sessions could influence legal proceedings to maximize deportations. Separately, David Frum has floated a scenario in which Justice Department antitrust actions function as a way to pressure or harass news organizations, though that seems unlikely.
4) Sessions’s worldview. Many of the above admittedly represent dire scenarios, and we do not know if anything like them will actually materialize. However, Sessions is also at the center of another big storyline, one that is centered on enduring questions about the true nature of Trumpism itself. The unknown is whether Trumpism will fulfill the worst fears of its critics and function as a blueprint for a Trump agenda that is not just anti-globalist in economic terms and driven by justifiable skepticism about immigration, but also one that is fundamentally ethno-nationalist or white nationalist in orientation.
It’s hard to say how or whether we will know this is happening, if it does, but ultimately the aggregation of various individual initiatives may add up to a clear indicator. Bannon has declared that Sessions “has played a critical role as the clearinghouse” for the “policy and philosophy” at the core of the “populist nation-state policies” otherwise known as Trumpism, and that he has been “at the forefront of this movement for years.”
Sessions is now in a remarkably good position to help translate this “philosophy” into reality. And we may now see what that philosophy actually looks like in the real world — for better or, more likely, for much, much worse.
* REPUBLICANS STRUGGLE TO FIND CONSENSUS ON OBAMACARE: Politico reports on the latest state of play, noting that there are at least a half-dozen “replacement” ideas swirling around among Republicans, but zero consensus:
The GOP wants to find a proposal that the whole party can get behind, but for now there are merely disparate ideas and warring factions fighting for attention. Republican leaders are … working behind the scenes to try to keep … out of the firing line of centrists looking to preserve care for millions of low-income Americans and conservatives who want to repeal now and figure out the rest later.
Something tells us that the camp that wants any replacement to cover far fewer people and wants to “figure out” that replacement “later” is going to end up having more sway over what happens.
* CONSERVATIVES PUSH GOP TO HURRY UP WITH REPEAL: Julie Rovner reports that conservatives are prodding Republicans to hurry up and repeal the ACA, before they vote on a replacement. Tea party Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) explains why:
“There is a lot less agreement about what comes next,” he said. “If we load down the repeal bill with what comes next, it’s harder to get both of them passed.”
Also, passing repeal and replace at the same time would allow for a direct comparison between the ACA and the GOP replacement before repeal, and we can’t have that, now can we.
* PAUL RYAN CASTS DOUBT ON TRUMP STANCE TOWARD RUSSIA: House Speaker Paul Ryan said on PBS that he is skeptical that Trump will succeed in improving relations with Russia:
“What the President is trying to do is not unlike what the past two presidents did with Russia. I just don’t think it’s going to work. … Can we help steer Russia to being something that doesn’t conflict with our interests — and something that aligns with our interests? I’m not going to hold my breath on that.”
The equivalence to past presidents was a clever little touch. On that score, maybe House Republicans might consider supporting a full, independent probe into Russian meddling in our elections?
* DEFENSE OFFICIALS WORRY ABOUT TRUMP TERRORISM POSTURE: An interesting scoop from Karen DeYoung reports that top defense and intelligence officials have warned the White House against a proposal to move toward declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization.
The concern: That the proposal could “endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and the overall fight against the Islamic State.” Shockingly, the professionals aren’t quite as enamored as Trump and his brain trust are of rhetoric that feeds the impression that the United States is at war with Islam.
* BANNON THINKS WE’RE IN A GLOBAL WAR WITH ISLAM: Related to the above: E.J. Dionne compares Steve Bannon’s views to those of Pope Francis, and digs up these Bannon quotes:
Bannon believes that “the Judeo-Christian West is in a crisis.” He calls for a return of “the church militant” who will “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity,” which threatens to “completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.” … Bannon points to “the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam” and reaches as far back as the eighth century to praise “forefathers” who defeated Islam on the battlefield and “kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places.”
Just the guy you want advising Trump on terrorism, national security and our posture toward Muslims at home and abroad.
* NEIL GORSUCH WHACKS TRUMP: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) recounts that in a private meeting, Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch criticized Trump’s attacks on the judiciary:
“I told him how abhorrent Donald Trump’s invective and insults are toward the judiciary. And he said to me that he found them ‘disheartening’ and ‘demoralizing’ — his words,” Blumenthal said in an interview.
Gorsuch “stated very emotionally and strongly his belief in his fellow judges’ integrity and the principle of judicial independence,” he added.
This is only the beginning. We need to hear Gorsuch’s views on a range of other areas in which the judiciary might act as a check on Trump’s authoritarianism and serial shredding of our norms.
* AND THE TRUMP TWEET OF THE DAY: Good morning, Mr. President:
Fortunately, senators can ask Gorsuch to publicly state his views of Trump’s assaults on the judiciary, at his confirmation hearing.