THE MORNING PLUM:
Last week, President Trump made some deeply unsettling comments that unleashed a storm of alarm over his increasingly lawless presidency. Trump admitted he wouldn’t have picked Jeff Sessions as attorney general if he’d known Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia probe, and claimed the recusal was “very unfair to the president.” Trump viewed it as a betrayal of him that the nation’s top law enforcement official obeyed the rules designed to ensure that the investigation — which is also examining the conduct of Trump and his campaign — remains an impartial one.
Now Trump has, if anything, gone further than that, both on Twitter this morning and in his private conversations about Sessions with his top advisers. The Post reports that Trump is discussing with his advisers whether to replace Sessions:
Replacing Sessions is viewed by some Trump associates as potentially being part of a strategy to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and end his investigation of whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
As The Post reports, the idea is that Sessions could be replaced with an acting attorney general who would do what Sessions did not — put an end to the probe led by independent counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Meanwhile, the Associated Press confirms today that Trump is seriously thinking of firing Sessions and continues to rage at him over the recusal, which he views as “disloyal.” On top of that, in a pair of tweets this morning, Trump blasted Sessions and the acting director of the FBI for failing to sufficiently investigate Hillary Clinton.
As demented as that tweetstorm is as an attack on Clinton, it has real significance in the context of Trump’s ongoing rage at Sessions over his failure (in Trump’s eyes) to police the Russia probe on his behalf. As Jack Goldsmith, a senior legal adviser in the George W. Bush administration, puts it:
This and other attacks on key law enforcement figures in his own Executive branch goes far beyond breaking norms of investigatory independence. They bring us clearly into the territory, where we may have been for a while, of a president bent on destroying the authority of the Justice Department that he worries, perhaps for reasons only he knows, may destroy him. At no time in modern history (and perhaps ever) has a President been so openly at odds, and bent on discrediting, his senior law enforcement and intelligence officials.
Two additional points about this:
No amount of loyalty or rule-bending is ever enough for Trump. On Sessions, let’s remember the larger context here. Sessions has skirted our norms on Trump’s behalf not once, but twice. First, he participated with Trump and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein in furnishing a rationale for the firing of former FBI director James B. Comey. As Trump subsequently revealed, he had already decided to fire Comey over his handling of the Russia probe (after demanding and not getting his loyalty). But Sessions and Rosenstein handed him a cover story in the form of criticism of Comey’s handling of the Clinton email probe. Sessions arguably should have recused himself from those deliberations to begin with, since he had already recused himself from matters related to Russia, having been a senior member of the Trump campaign. But his participation in providing that rationale raises additional questions and may look worse once more is learned about the process leading up to Comey’s firing.
Second, Sessions only recused himself from the Russia probe in the first place after the news of previously undisclosed meetings with Russian officials during the campaign left him no choice. But it was obvious from the start that Sessions, as a top campaign adviser, could not preside over an impartial probe into the Trump campaign’s conduct. Sessions finally did the right thing under duress, and in so doing, retroactively affirmed the rules that are meant to reassure the public that the investigation will be impartial. But Trump sees this, too, as an act of further disloyalty to him.
This confirms again that Trump evidently harbors no sense of obligation to the public that might lead him to want such rules to be followed in the interests of reassuring the public and seeing an impartial probe. But beyond this, just as Sean Spicer endlessly debased himself by telling Trump’s lies and undermining the media’s institutional role in holding Trump accountable for months, only to find himself cast aside in humiliating fashion, Sessions may be discovering that no amount of loyalty to Trump is ever enough, should Trump irrationally decide that you are failing him (nothing, needless to say, is ever Trump’s fault). As former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller points out, “Trump will always demand more.”
Republican senators are defending Sessions, but they should do more to defend the rule of law. McClatchy talked to Republican senators about Trump’s ongoing attacks on Sessions, and got this:
“I don’t understand it. There’s no more honorable person I’ve ever met in my life than Jeff Sessions,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a close friend of Sessions and his wife. “The only person who is more upset with Trump about this than me, is my wife.” …
Senators made it clear the attack on one of their own stands to color Trump’s relationship with Senate Republicans, said Inhofe, a senator since 1994.
“I’m 100 percent for the president, but I really have a hard time with this,” he said.
“That’s what he does, I don’t think he means harm with those tweets,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said of Trump.
But Hatch added, “I’d prefer that he didn’t do that. We’d like Jeff to be treated fairly.”
The careful reader will note that these senators are defending Sessions on a personal level. But what we really need to hear right now is more condemnation of Trump’s assault on the rule of law and more affirmation of the need for an independent investigation, which Trump is seeking to undermine.
* HOW SENATE WILL VOTE TODAY: The New York Times notes that the Senate will vote to proceed to debate on the version of the repeal-and-replace bill that passed the House. And then:
Mr. McConnell could quickly move to replace the House bill with an entirely new measure to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement. If that amendment vote fails, as it most likely would, he could move to replace the House bill with a version of the proposal he has been refining for weeks: to repeal the health law while also replacing it.
So Republicans will be voting to proceed to debate on the understanding that they would then vote on something that leaves either 32 million or 22 million fewer covered.
* NO ONE KNOWS WHAT IS BEING VOTED ON: Axios’s Caitlin Owens talks to multiple GOP aides who say that no one will see a final bill before the motion to proceed is voted on. As one puts it, this is “because we don’t have a product that 50 senators agree to.” A second says: “We have no idea what the final product will be.”
We need a new vocabulary to describe the bottomless levels of bad faith we’re seeing here.
* REPUBLICANS MULL PLAN B: The Post reports that GOP leaders, including John Cornyn of Texas, are hatching a backup plan:
One emerging idea late Monday was to scale down the scope of the proposals and instead find a narrower bill. That would set up a House-Senate conference to resolve the differences between the two proposals, buying Republicans more time. Cornyn confirmed Monday evening that congressional leaders were now leaning against the original plan … to have the House immediately approve the Senate bill once it was approved in the upper chamber.
So instead of the Senate passing a comprehensive bill that the House would rubber stamp, Republicans would plunge into a process that would drag on for weeks or even months to come.
* TRUMP TAKES HIS BROKEN PROMISES TO OHIO: Politico reports that Trump will be holding a rally in Ohio later today, which will showcase all the unfulfilled promises he made to his voters in the industrial Midwest:
Trump campaigned across Ohio as the “jobs candidate,” promising to re-negotiate trade deals, protect Social Security, make no cuts to Medicare or Medicaid, invest $550 billion in infrastructure – assurances that have yet to materialize.
Well, the mass deportations, the travel ban, and the nixing of the Paris climate accord are all alive, to one degree or another. “Jobs” promise kept, right?
* JOHN BOEHNER SAYS REPEAL WON’T WORK: In video obtained by The Post, the former House speaker tells a business group that repealing the ACA is a non-starter in substantive terms:
“They’re not going to repeal and replace Obamacare. It’s been around too long. And the American people have gotten accustomed to it. Governors have gotten accustomed to this Medicaid expansion, and so trying to pull it back is really not going to work.”
How many votes on repeal did Boehner preside over again? Coming from him, this is a useful admission.
* AND TRUMP DOESN’T CARE WHAT HEALTH-CARE BILL HE SIGNS: Good morning, Mr. President:
It’s good to have it confirmed that Trump does not care what health-care bill he signs. Let’s hope moderate GOP senators think carefully about whether they want to enable this approach to a matter that will impact tens of millions and one sixth of the U.S. economy.