Just in case the Democratic capture of the House of Representatives tempted you to relax for a moment about the state of our country, President Trump quickly moved to remind us that we still have no idea how low he’s going to sink — or how much damage he’ll do along the way.
This happened on multiple fronts. Here’s the most immediate one:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned on Wednesday at President Trump’s request, ending the tenure of a loyalist Trump had soured on shortly after Sessions took office in 2017 because the former senator from Alabama had recused himself from oversight of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
In a letter to Trump, Sessions wrote he had been “honored to serve as Attorney General” and had “worked to implement the law enforcement agenda based on the rule of law that formed a central part of your campaign for the presidency.” Trump tweeted that Sessions would be replaced on an acting basis by Matthew G. Whitaker, who had been serving as Sessions’s chief of staff.
At the center of this decision to force out Sessions is the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Trump has long raged at Sessions for recusing himself from the probe, rather than constraining it on Trump’s behalf. We all knew this day would come as a result, because, as The Post notes, the two men were fundamentally at odds over whether it’s the proper role of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer to protect Trump’s personal and legal interests:
A person close to Sessions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank, said the attorney general . . . thought that by staying in the job, he had protected the integrity of the investigation, the person said. In the long run, Sessions is convinced that the country will be better served by the investigation proceeding naturally, as the findings will be more credible to the American public, the person said.
However sincere this is, it has long been obvious that any attorney general who did not place Trump’s own interests over those of the country would have to go.
Democrats immediately pounced on the news that Whitaker will replace him, pointing to highly questionable comments he’s made about the Mueller probe. Before becoming Sessions’s chief of staff, Whitaker suggested regulations allowed for Trump to put in an acting replacement for the attorney general — meaning one who would not have to be confirmed by the Senate — who could, if he wished, starve the Mueller probe of funds:
“So I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment,” Whitaker said, “and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
Now this person, conveniently enough, is Whitaker. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein oversees the investigation, but the new acting attorney general, by not recusing himself, might be able to carry out such a scenario. According to legal expert Stephen Vladeck, Whitaker supplants Rosenstein as overseer of the investigation. This raises at least the possibility that some sort of effort to constrain the probe could be put in motion during the lame-duck period, that is, before Democrats take over the House.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer is calling on Whitaker to recuse himself over his previous comments. And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, just put out a statement pointing out that “replacing the Attorney General with a non-Senate-confirmed political staffer is highly irregular and unacceptable.” Blumenthal called for new legislation to protect the Mueller investigation, describing this as a “break the glass moment.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell does not see the same urgency. He cheerfully wished Sessions well without mentioning word boo about the Mueller investigation. McConnell, you may recall, has blithely dismissed any need for Mueller-protection legislation in the past.
Whatever is to be on this front, note that it comes after Trump gave a startlingly unhinged performance at a news conference Wednesday. He flatly declared he can “fire” everyone associated with the Mueller investigation if he wishes, repeatedly dismissing it as a hoax. He raged at CNN’s Jim Acosta, angrily shouting that CNN is “fake news.”
And then, after a reporter pressed Trump on whether his declaration that he is a “nationalist” amounted to an embrace of white nationalism, this happened:
One shudders to imagine the message that white nationalist and alt-right groups will take from the spectacle of the president of the United States dressing down a black reporter’s question (Trump was also very abusive toward another black female reporter, April Ryan) about his white nationalism as “racist.” Given that these groups are already emboldened by the ongoing mainstreaming of their views at the hands of Trump and others, this is just an extraordinary act of malicious and destructive intent.
There is a tendency after big electoral victories such as the one last night to grow a bit complacent, to imagine that a semblance of normalcy has been restored. In multiple ways, Trump reminded us today that we can’t relax even for a second.