The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s rage at Sessions puts the president in serious danger

Jonathan Capehart, Fred Hiatt, Christine Emba and Molly Roberts of The Post Opinions section discuss Trump's attack on Jeff Sessions and democratic norms. (Video: The Washington Post)


We often treat President Trump’s demands for loyalty from law enforcement, and his open chafing at institutional constraints on his power, as the temperamental explosions of an out-of-control madman whose tyrannical tendencies are largely impulsive — a Mad King. But what if they are driven by calculations that are deliberately designed to achieve a concrete end that he perceives to be the best of a range of possible outcomes for him?

In the case of Trump’s efforts to hamstring the Russia probe, this is becoming increasingly clear. At the same time, those obstruction efforts are failing to bring him closer to his own apparent goals, and may arguably be putting him in greater danger. One might refer to this paradox as Trump’s “irrational instrumentalism.”

The Post has a blockbuster report that tells us that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is scrutinizing Trump’s efforts to push out Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the summer, to determine “whether those efforts were part of a months-long pattern of attempted obstruction of justice,” as The Post puts it:

In recent months, Mueller’s team has questioned witnesses in detail about Trump’s private comments and state of mind in late July and early August of last year, around the time he issued a series of tweets belittling his “beleaguered” attorney general, these people said. The thrust of the questions was to determine whether the president’s goal was to oust Sessions in order to pick a replacement who would exercise control over the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump associates during the 2016 election, these people said. …
In mid-July, Trump started escalating his public criticisms of Sessions, including angry tweets. Around that time, according to people familiar with internal White House discussions, the president discussed firing Sessions or forcing him out of the Justice Department. Those discussions are of particular interest to Mueller’s investigators, as they seek to determine the president’s intentions, according to a person familiar with the probe.
At the time, a White House adviser told a Washington Post reporter that Trump was “stunned” that Sessions had not yet quit. The president, this adviser added, had been hoping the attorney general would be so embarrassed by Trump’s scathing comments that he would leave.

As has been widely noted, Trump’s assaults on Sessions, and his calls for prosecution of political opponents, reveal that he views law enforcement as little more than an instrument at his political service. Trump has raged at Sessions for failing to protect him from an investigation that began when he was a candidate, and was taken over by Mueller precisely because of Trump’s own conduct in firing former FBI director James B. Comey. Trump and his allies have gone to extraordinary lengths to pervert and weaponize the congressional oversight process to portray that investigation as illegitimate, but independent reporting and a successful push by Democrats to smuggle out basic facts in the face of that massive disinformation campaign have laid waste to those efforts.

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Now Mueller is scrutinizing whether Trump’s efforts to remove Sessions are part of a broader pattern designed to obstruct justice. Mueller wants to know whether Trump hoped to replace him with someone who would protect him from the probe. And the fact that Mueller is scrutinizing Trump’s efforts in this regard over the summer is significant. Remember the timing here: As you may recall, Trump ordered his White House counsel to fire Mueller in June, an effort that failed when the counsel threatened to quit. And so, it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that Trump’s subsequent effort to dislodge Sessions may have been designed to bring about the same end, in a different way: If his White House counsel wouldn’t fire Mueller, he’d replace his disloyal attorney general with someone who might at least constrain Mueller.

This isn’t at all a stretch, because this desire on Trump’s part to enlist help in constraining the Mueller probe has been documented by independent reporting — repeatedly. It was widely reported that Trump wanted the Nunes memo released because it might give him pretext to remove Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who currently oversees the Mueller probe, apparently to replace him with a loyalist. And last spring, Trump ordered the White House counsel to stop Sessions from recusing himself from the probe with the explicit purpose of getting Sessions to protect him from it. When that failed, Trump raged: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

Trump himself has basically told us in his own words, again and again and again, that he believes law enforcement should function as an instrument of his political will. How much clearer can it be?

One might ask why Trump hasn’t just fired Sessions and replaced him with someone who will protect him from Mueller. But there’s an answer: The Times reports that Trump views himself as “constrained” from this option because senators in both parties — yes, including Republicans — would view this as a step too far. This is likely constraining Trump from firing Rosenstein as well. We also know Trump’s lawyers are forestalling such drastic steps by telling him Mueller is close to wrapping up.

To show obstruction of justice, Mueller must demonstrate that Trump’s efforts to hamstring the investigation were undertaken with “corrupt intent” and an “improper purpose,” such as protecting himself and his associates from accountability. Even if Mueller does not conclude that the president is criminally liable, he could still document a pattern of serious misconduct. And so, the key question — which Mueller is plainly trying to answer — is whether there’s actually a methodical pattern in that behavior that’s designed to achieve a concrete goal. As law professor Eric Posner put it to me, it increasingly appears Trump is acting “instrumentally rational” toward “getting what he wants.” Posner added: “The more you think that Trump is acting pursuant to a clear plan in his mind to protect himself and his family from these investigations, the more you’ll think that it’s obstruction of justice.”

Again and again, Trump has tried to act toward the obvious concrete end of hamstringing or constraining the probe. Again and again, his efforts have been foiled, and he has recoiled from taking the most drastic steps. This pattern of behavior has not moved him any closer to his own evident goal. Yet the pattern of behavior itself could either prove incriminating or could expose him to substantially worse political peril. Yep: What we’re seeing here is irrational instrumentalism.

* HICKS’S RESIGNATION LEAVES TRUMP ‘ISOLATED’: White House communications director Hope Hicks’s resignation comes after she testified to a House committee that she sometimes tells white lies on Trump’s behalf. The Post adds:

Hicks’s resignation leaves Trump … increasingly isolated in his own West Wing, which has returned to the chaos and tumult of its earliest days. “Trump is a lone-wolf president in a sequestered White House,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “He doesn’t trust his own agencies. He’s at war with his Justice Department. His son-in-law can’t get a security clearance. Hicks says she told white lies on his behalf and is disappearing. It’s just raining bad news on the president. He’s in a corner and there’s no easy exit.”

And there are still nearly three years to go.

* DRIP-DRIP-DRIP ON KUSHNER CONTINUES: The New York Times reports that a private equity billionaire met with Jared Kushner to talk infrastructure policy and a possible White House job. After that, his company gave Kushner’s real estate firm a $184 million loan:

There is little precedent for a top White House official meeting with executives of companies as they contemplate sizable loans to his business, say government ethics experts. “This is exactly why senior government officials, for as long back as I have any experience, don’t maintain any active outside business interests,” said Don Fox, the former acting director of the Office of Government Ethics during the Obama administration … “The appearance of conflicts of interest is simply too great.”

The Times piece adds that Mueller’s investigators are also scrutinizing Kushner’s “interactions with potential investors from overseas,” presumably to probe whether they tried to influence him.

* DEMOCRATS RUN ON GUN CONTROL IN KEY DISTRICTS: Politico reports that Democratic operatives are increasingly looking at gun reform as a winning issue in certain districts:

Multiple Democratic political operatives said they will surgically deploy the issue in select competitive states and House districts, especially those wracked by mass shootings. … Democrats are looking to oust House GOP incumbents representing suburban House districts in Florida, Northern Virginia and Nevada whom they believe are out of step with their constituents on guns. … both parties say the topic could be central in suburban districts.

Politico reports that Democrats from red states are proceeding cautiously, but that’s to be expected, and the bigger development is this willingness to embrace the public shift we’re seeing.

* WALMART JOINS DICK’S SPORTING GOODS: Walmart has now announced it will raise the age for all firearms and ammunition purchases to 21, after having ended sales of “modern sporting rifles,” including the AR-15, in 2015:

We take seriously our obligation to be a responsible seller of firearms and go beyond Federal law by requiring customers to pass a background check before purchasing any firearm. The law would allow the sale of a firearm if no response to a background check request has been received within three business days, but our policy prohibits the sale until an approval is given. … Our heritage as a company has always been in serving sportsmen and hunters, and we will continue to do so in a responsible way.

This doesn’t go as far as Dick’s did in calling for comprehensive additional legislation, but it’s another sign that market pressures may be effecting a real cultural shift.

* TRUMP MAY ANNOUNCE STEEL TARIFFS: The Wall Street Journal reports that Trump may announce as early as today that he is rolling out new tariffs on steel and aluminum in the name of national security:

The issue has been the subject of intense infighting inside the administration … [Those] urging caution has included Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council, and Defense Secretary James Mattis. New import curbs would spark strong protests from trading partners and allies around the world … said they would likely retaliate if they were hit with tariffs or quotas.

A trade war? The problem is that we just have no idea what is motivating Trump to do this, and it likely has little to do with a serious effort on his part to evaluate its impact.

* REPUBLICANS FRET ABOUT ARPAIO’S SENATE RUN: Michael Scherer reports that lawless, abusive former sheriff Joe Arpaio views his Senate GOP primary run in Arizona as a referendum on the popularity of Trumpism:

“There is a silent majority out there, and that’s why he won,” Arpaio said at an event at a dun-colored retirement community here in February. … Such comments have raised concerns of Senate Republican leaders, who worry about holding on to the seat held by Jeff Flake, who is retiring, in a difficult ­November general election.

Huh. If Senate GOP leaders worry that Arpaio would put the seat at risk, maybe there actually isn’t a silent majority out there in support of undiluted Trumpism, which Arpaio does represent perfectly.

* POLL: MOST AMERICANS SAY TRUMP IS RACIST: A new Associated Press-NORC poll finds that 57 percent of Americans say Trump is a racist, including more than 8 in 10 blacks, three-quarters of Hispanics and nearly half of whites. And:

Eighty-five percent of Democrats consider Trump racist, but just 21 percent of Republicans agree. … There are vast partisan divides on the impact of Trump’s policies … 73 percent of Democrats but just 14 percent of Republicans think they’ve been harmful to African Americans, while 78 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans think they’ve been harmful to Hispanics.

That more than one-fifth of Republicans agree Trump is a racist, and a quarter of them think Trump’s policies have harmed Hispanics, seems pretty remarkable and telling.