The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is now raging at Jeff Sessions. This hints at a deeply unsettling pattern.

The Supreme Court is allowing a limited version of President Trump's travel ban to take effect as it gears up to hear the case in the fall. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)


On Monday, President Trump angrily lashed out at the Justice Department for defending the weaker second version of his immigration ban. This was odd, because Trump himself signed the executive order promulgating that revised version, which was ostensibly designed to address the court’s concerns about the first — objections the White House itself said it hoped to address.

But it turns out that Trump’s anger at the Justice Department has a deeper source: rage at Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The New York Times reports on what’s at the root of it:

He has intermittently fumed for months over Mr. Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election, according to people close to Mr. Trump who insisted on anonymity to describe internal conversations. In Mr. Trump’s view, they said, it was that recusal that eventually led to the appointment of a special counsel who took over the investigation.

Trump appears worryingly unable to contemplate his own role in bringing about the special counsel. The firing of FBI Director James B. Comey led to reports that Trump allegedly demanded Comey’s loyalty and to Trump’s admission that he fired Comey over the Russia probe. This revealed that the Justice Department’s memo providing Trump his initial rationale for the firing (Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton probe) was bogus. Which led to the special counsel.

Beyond this, though, note this: Trump’s seething anger at Sessions is disconcertingly similar to the anger that led him to fire Comey. As the Times previously reported, Trump privately “burned” as he watched Comey testify to Congress about Russia’s efforts to tip the election to Trump, and was “particularly irked” when Comey conceded his own intervention, via a letter about Clinton’s emails, may have influenced the outcome, which Trump “took to demean his own role in history.” The Post added that Trump was “infuriated” at the FBI’s failure to investigate and stop leaks, which have led to news accounts detailing what the Russia probe was finding.

Both Comey and Sessions enraged Trump because in some manner or other, they failed to show a level of loyalty to Trump that would have trumped (as it were) legitimate processes. Comey kept publicly validating the Russia investigation (which Trump dismisses as nothing but “Fake News”) and would not make it disappear by stopping leaks about it. Sessions recused himself to display (nominal) independence, which Trump somehow interpreted as a lapse into weakness that led to the special counsel, further affirming the probe’s weightiness.

Students of authoritarianism see a pattern taking shape

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Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University who writes extensively on authoritarianism and Italian fascism, told me that a discernible trait of authoritarian and autocratic rulers is ongoing “frustration” with the “inability to make others do their bidding” and with “institutional and bureaucratic procedures and checks and balances.”

“Trump doesn’t respect democratic procedure and finds it to be something that gets in his way,” Ben-Ghiat said. “The blaming of others is very typical of autocrats, because they have difficulty listening to a reality that doesn’t coincide with their version of it. It’s part of the authoritarian temperament to blame others when things aren’t working.”

Trump expects independent officials “to behave according to personal loyalty, as opposed to following the rules,” added Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University who wrote “On Tyranny,” a book of lessons from the 20th century. “For Trump, that is how the world is supposed to work. Trump doesn’t understand that in the world there might truly be laws and rules that constrain a leader.”

Snyder noted that authoritarian tendencies often go hand in hand with impatience at such constraints. “You have to have morality and a set of institutions that escape the normal balance of administrative practice,” Snyder said. “You have to be able to lie all the time. You have to have people around you who tell you how wonderful you are all the time. You have to have institutions which don’t follow the law and instead follow some kind of law of loyalty.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said it was a "thrill" to return to the Justice Department during a speech in Atlanta on June 6. (Video: Reuters)

It seems obvious that early worries about an unbound authoritarian Trump — fears that our institutions would not hold up or that Trump would bulldoze them — now look overblown. But nonetheless, echoes of these traits do appear present. The nonstop lying and endless attacks on the news media appear designed to obliterate shared agreement on the legitimate institutional role of the press in holding Trump accountable to some semblance of shared truth and reality. Importantly, many of Trump’s favorite lies exaggerate the significance of his electoral victory: There’s the claim that Trump would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal voters; the buffoonish efforts to inflate his inaugural crowd sizes; and the assertion that former president Barack Obama wiretapped his phones, showing that he, too, had been illicitly targeted during the election.

Meanwhile, Trump’s underlings must constantly find ever-more-creative ways of propping up those lies: a “voting fraud” commission; Sean Spicer’s assaults on the media for minimizing Trump’s crowd sizes; the internal hunt for “evidence” of the Obama wiretap; and so forth. But the Russia probe persists. It plainly nags at Trump because he believes it undercuts his legitimacy. Sessions and Comey have both failed to make it go away. Trump is reportedly raging about that failing, and even seems to have fired Comey over it. And Comey hasn’t even told his side of the story in public yet.

* TRUMP’S LAWLESS PRESIDENCY: David Leonhardt has a must-read documenting all the aspects of Trump’s presidency that are rooted in a fundamental contempt for the rule of law. Many of these are the ones related above. And there’s also this:

Foreign governments speed up trademark applications from Trump businesses. Foreign officials curry favor by staying at his hotel. A senior administration official urges people to buy Ivanka Trump’s clothing. The president violates bipartisan tradition by refusing to release his tax returns, thus shrouding his conflicts…
The behavior has no precedent. “Trump and his administration are flagrantly violating ethics laws,” the former top ethics advisers to George W. Bush and Barack Obama have written.
Their attitude is clear: If we’re doing it, it’s O.K.

This often escapes notice, but Trump’s serial shredding of baseline norms of ethics and transparency is also a key component of his autocracy — he does this, because he can.

* WALL STREET JOURNAL RIPS TRUMP’S BLAME-EVERYONE-ELSE APPROACH: The Wall Street Journal opens fire on Trump for his latest bout of blaming everyone around him for wounds he has inflicted on himself. Note this, on his attacks on the courts:

He is exercising core presidential powers over foreign affairs that the courts may restrict if Mr. Trump keeps daring them to do so … Trump has given liberal judges Twitter evidence to conclude that his motives may be suspect. At the very least he is making it harder to corral a Supreme Court majority.

It is plausible that Trump’s bottomless bad faith and contempt for process are undermining his agenda, and the attacks on the courts could indeed make them more inclined to constrain him.

* CONGRESSIONAL GOP PLUMMETS ON HEALTH CARE: A new Morning Consult poll finds an enormous swing toward the Democrats on the question of which party is trusted more on health care. In early March, Republicans led, 43 percent to 39 percent, among registered voters. But now, voters back Democrats on the issue by 48-35.

It turns out that pushing a plan that would leave 23 million fewer covered, gut protections for preexisting conditions and cut hundreds of billions from health spending on poor people to fund an enormous tax cut for the rich might turn voters off.

* SOME REPUBLICANS ARE PESSIMISTIC ABOUT HEALTH PUSH: McClatchy reports that Senate Republicans will meet today to discuss various options for moving their own repeal-and-replace bill. Note this:

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said leadership is “optimistic and we’ll see how it goes in the next few days.” But he said the Senate at a certain point will need to move on: “I don’t think this gets better over time,” he said. “My personal view is we’ve got now until the Fourth of July to decide whether the votes are there or not.”

We’ll see. I would not be surprised if Senate Republicans who currently oppose the worst aspects of the House GOP approach suddenly find a way to argue that they have been mitigated in the Senate version.


68 percent of Americans want the United States to lead global efforts to slow climate change, and 72 percent agree “that given the amount of greenhouse gases that it produces, the United States should take aggressive action to slow global warming.” … Even so, Americans rank the environment near the bottom of their list of priorities for the country. Only about 4 percent of Americans believe that the “environment” is a bigger issue than healthcare, the economy, terrorism, immigration, education, crime and morality.

And there you have it. Climate activists may be winning the argument, but no one knows how to make this a voting issue.

* DEMOCRAT WOMEN LINE UP FOR 2020: Politico reports that four female Democratic senators — Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris — may run for president and notes that Democratic strategists are trying to learn from Hillary Clinton’s loss:

High-level Democratic operatives remain confident that Clinton’s treatment from Republicans was singularly brutal, a result of decades’ worth of history as a leading figure in the public eye — something that none of the four possible top-tier 2020 hopefuls have endured. So while strategists are concerned about sexism weighing them down, the expectation is that they’d face a less furious reaction than Clinton.

This seems right. Clinton was uniquely pilloried for more than two decades, and this — plus her own obvious flaws — surely helped explain the durability of her high negatives.

* TRUMP TRIPLES DOWN ON ‘TRAVEL BAN’: Last night, Trump again tweeted that his travel ban is a travel ban, even if Sean Spicer and the lawyers say it isn’t.

As Adam Liptak and Peter Baker point out: “In calling the revised order ‘politically correct,’ Mr. Trump suggested that his goal throughout had been to exclude travelers based on religion.”