Why was President Trump so frantic to ensure that his attorney general would shield him against the inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election?
For all the unsettling questions swirling about Trump in recent days, this may turn out to be the most important and, for the president, the most ominous. The more information that emerges about Trump's mania to keep Jeff Sessions in control of the investigation and his fury when the attorney general chose to step aside, the more perilous the president's legal situation appears.
In that sense, a report by the New York Times's Michael S. Schmidt may end up being more damaging for Trump than his portrayal in Michael Wolff's new book. If Schmidt's reporting is accurate, three consequences follow:
First, White House counsel Donald McGahn must go, because, at Trump's direction, he improperly pressured Sessions not to step aside from the Russia probe. That Sessions resisted McGahn's lobbying is laudable but irrelevant. The White House counsel represents the office of the presidency. He isn't the president's personal pit bull — his "Roy Cohn," in Trump's reported lament. Leaning on the attorney general to remain in charge of a criminal investigation that touches on the president is not part of the White House counsel's job description.
Second, Sessions may need to go, because he oversaw or directed a public smear campaign against the sitting FBI director, James B. Comey. Schmidt writes that Sessions "wanted one negative article a day in the news media about Mr. Comey, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting" between a congressional staffer and a Sessions aide seeking dirt on Comey. The Justice Department flatly denies this account. But if it turns out to be true, that conduct is far beyond what is appropriate for the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
Third, the Schmidt report edges Trump himself even closer to having obstructed justice. Whether special counsel Robert S. Mueller III would bring a criminal case on those grounds, there is no doubt that obstructing justice can be the basis for impeachment.
Let's back up. There are two possible explanations for Trump's persistent refusal to acknowledge the reality of Russian meddling and his anger over the resulting criminal investigation. The more benign is that he is so insecure that he cannot tolerate any insinuation that his victory is tainted and his presidency illegitimate. The more worrisome is that Trump knows he or those around him have something to hide.
Schmidt's depiction puts another thumb on the scale of that interpretation. As Schmidt writes, after Sessions's recusal, "the president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama."
Which raises the question: Protect him from what?
Perhaps merely the stain of an ongoing criminal investigation; see explanation one, above. Some support for this interpretation comes in the form of Trump's evident disdain for the proper boundaries between a president and his Justice Department. In the most charitable interpretation, Trump felt aggrieved at being investigated for "made-up problems like Russian collusion" and counted on Sessions to make that go away.
But the more persuasive interpretation, based on the totality of the amassed evidence and the new revelations, is that Trump understood Mueller's investigation as an existential threat. The ferocity of his opposition, as underscored by the new report of ordering McGahn to help keep Sessions in place, lends credence to this view. So do other aspects of Trump's conduct: demanding Comey's loyalty; asking him, on the investigation of fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, to "let this go"; drafting a misleading statement about the purpose of Donald Trump Jr.'s 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer peddling dirt on Hillary Clinton.
And, of course, firing Comey, based on the laughable justification that his public statements during the campaign were unfair to Hillary Clinton. Now, with Schmidt's story, we learn that the initial letter that Trump drafted to justify Comey's firing — notwithstanding previous denials by the White House — began by explicitly pointing to the "fabricated and politically motivated" Russian investigation.
The lengths to which Trump seems willing to go to shut down this probe and to hide his tracks suggest that something more than his fragile ego is at stake here.