President Trump feels the hot breath of the Russia investigation on his neck: He’s tweeting heedlessly, almost maniacally, as special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s team methodically grinds its way toward the president’s tax returns and business records. Meanwhile, his hollow White House “functions” amid any number of warring, perpetually shifting factions, a cluster of Borgias on the Potomac, watching for any sign of less-than-unconditional fealty, of daggers hidden in sleeves, and of poisoned goblets.
“We could use some more loyalty,” the president told Boy Scouts on Monday night. Too bad he’s been lashing out at the one person in his administration who’s loyally moved his agenda forward — Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
First, Trump went on the record with his (sometimes) bête noire, the New York Times, to gripe that Sessions recusing himself on Russia matters was “very unfair to the president.” Next, Trump took to Twitter to blast Sessions for having “taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes.” Then, Tuesday, standing next to Lebanon’s prime minister at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden, Trump said he was “very disappointed with the attorney general” but only “time will tell” his fate. Never mind that recusal was the proper path and virtually no one, except Trump, faulted Sessions’s decision. Which really tells you all you need to know about Trump: Sessions has done more, in six months, to advance the weird brew of nationalism and big-government-ism that is Trumpism, than anyone. But to Trump, personal loyalty — and, perhaps, a plausible route to ridding himself of Mueller — is what matters. Over the years, Trump has betrayed a string of people who’ve trusted him in marriage, business and politics; his idea of loyalty is a steep, slippery, one-way street. And if Sessions didn’t know it before, now he does.
He was unquestionably, and crucially loyal to Trump during the 2016 campaign. When then-Sen. Sessions appeared onstage at a Trump rally in Mobile, Ala., on a humid night in August 2015, donned the infamous “Make America Great Again” hat, and later, in February 2016, formally endorsed then-candidate Trump, he validated the president to many in Washington. After all, Washington had always viewed the Alabama senator as a serious conservative. If Sessions could find a way to #MAGA, couldn’t they? In the Acela Corridor’s media ecosystem, he was a tireless promoter of Trump’s shambolic gaffe machine.
His Justice Department has fought rabidly to defend Trump’s clumsy, ill-conceived Muslim travel ban. As attorney general, Sessions is on the tip of the Spear of Steves — the Stephen Bannon-Stephen Miller anti-immigrant push, as his “This is the Trump era” speech on the U.S.-Mexico border signaled in April. In many ways, Trump’s immigration policies were shaped by Sessions, a man he now reviles. Miller, once a Sessions acolyte, remains in the White House, his silence loudly suggesting that he’s content to let his old boss twist in the wind.
Over the past decade, conservatives have taken a hard look at criminal justice reform and concluded that our long-standing, tough-on-crime political war led to a system that was too punitive, too reflexive and too racially separate — to the point that just about the only bipartisan thing going in Washington right now is the joint bail reform initiative of conservatarian Sen. Rand Paul and San Francisco liberal Sen. Kamala Harris. But the Sessions Justice Department, consonant with the swaggering lock-’em-up rhetoric of the Trump campaign, has ordered federal prosecutors to aim for the toughest penalties in every case. Criminal justice reform is for losers. Sad.
Non-Trump conservatives find the Sessions Justice Department’s expansive statism hard to swallow; his reiteration of the tried-and-failed War on Drugs is particularly repellent to those who claim to believe in federalism. Despite decades of Republicans advocating for power to flow back to the states and away from one-size-fits-all Washington regulatory and legal control, the “beleaguered” attorney general’s almost obsessive anti-drug crusade has focused on states that have passed marijuana decriminalization and legalization. Just the kind of showy but ineffective and unconservative policy that Trump routinely favors.
Sessions reversed an Obama-era reform that had been heralded across the political spectrum when he reapplied civil asset forfeiture regulations, allowing law enforcement agencies to seize property for people suspected of crimes — a move that law professor and conservative USA Today columnist Glenn Harlan Reynolds rightly argues is a message that “the feds see the rest of us as prey, not as citizens.” Not a huge surprise coming from the Trump-Sessions Justice Department.
Sessions even announced he won’t keep the National Commission on Forensic Science, an advisory panel formed during the Obama years with this heretofore not-so-controversial aim: “to raise forensic science standards.” So much for enriching the ability to study evidence of crimes, both to convict the guilty and to exonerate the innocent.
With the possible exception of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Sessions has been arguably the most successful Cabinet member — if success is defined as advancing the agenda of the guy who installed you in your post (crazy, I know). Russian President Vladimir Putin and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner seem to run more of our foreign policy decisions than Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is hip deep in the still-unfolding Trumpcare fiasco. The rest of the lot serve mostly as props for Dear Leader-y Cabinet meetings and stage-fodder for press events. But even in his rush to stroke Trump’s ego, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus thanked Trump for “the opportunity and blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda.” Your agenda, Mr. President, not you.
An agenda that most Americans find repellent, but that, for better or worse, is exactly what President Trump campaigned on and what his base wants.
And Sessions is doing everything he can to make good on it, cashing in his decades of Washington experience, a reputation as a serious Washington player and his newfound clout as an undying Trump loyalist. He took office and started putting “wins” on the board for Team Trump. (“So much winning” that, indeed, I’m already “bored” with it.) All he’s left out is the one thing Trump most desires: someone to slam the brakes on the multiple, burgeoning, Russia investigations.
Whether Trump fires him, he’s damaged his hand-picked attorney general — and Sessions’s ability to press the administration’s agenda — beyond repair.
It wasn’t enough for this president. Nothing ever is.