How on earth did Jeff Sessions — Jeff Sessions! — find himself abandoned by the right and embraced by the left?
For sure, President Trump has a special talent for matchmaking strange bedfellows. He has somehow gotten liberals to feel a begrudging sympathy or even admiration for figures they once reviled. Think: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), James B. Comey, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (however briefly), the Kochs. Even ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is getting some love (and donations) from left-wingers.
But, surely, the unlikeliest of the left’s adopted underdogs is Trump’s embattled U.S. attorney general.
Publicly and privately, the president has expressed his displeasure with Sessions. Trump complains that Sessions has been disloyal and disgraceful, that he has gone soft on Hillary Clinton and the “deep state,” and even that he talks funny.
Look, there are lots and lots of reasons to criticize Sessions. But his Southern drawl and supposed pro-Clintonism are not among them.
Instead, look to his policy record.
This is a man who called the landmark Voting Rights Act “intrusive” in confirmation hearings, and who has since worked to nullify that intrusion. In his post as Alabama attorney general, Sessions pushed to execute drug traffickers, as well as defendants who were mentally ill or intellectually disabled. In his current job, he reinterpreted asylum law to turn away victims of domestic violence and defended the administration’s family separation policy.
In a better world, someone with Sessions’s repugnant record on civil rights, voting rights, criminal justice and immigration would get nowhere near the attorney general’s office. Right now, however, even his ideological enemies know he needs to stay in that job — because he’s somehow all that stands between the country and another Saturday Night Massacre.
And let’s be clear: That is 100 percent the fault of the cowards in Congress.
Trump’s real grudge against Sessions, of course, is that the attorney general recused himself from the Russia investigation. With Sessions gone, Trump could appoint a new, un-recused top prosecutor, who could interfere with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe or even fire Mueller and shut down the inquiry altogether.
If Republican lawmakers had any spine left, they would pass legislation to protect Mueller from being dismissed without cause. Or they could signal that having Mueller fired or otherwise interfering with his investigation would constitute criminal obstruction of justice warranting impeachment.
Under such circumstances, Sessions could, would and should go. We’d no longer need to rely on him to prevent the leader of the free world from killing an ongoing investigation involving his own campaign, family and finances.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has refused to bring the bill protecting Mueller to the floor.
This refusal does not appear to be driven by complicated constitutional questions over whether such a bill would usurp executive power. Rather, both McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) have said no congressional action is necessary to ensure Mueller’s investigation continues because Trump wouldn’t dare try to stop it.
“I don’t think he’s going to fire Mueller,” Ryan said in April, with a straight face, despite Trump’s not-so-subtle threats to the contrary.
More recently, Republican lawmakers have even been signaling to Trump that they’d be cool with another Saturday Night Massacre.
“The president’s entitled to an attorney general he has faith in,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters. He added: “Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn’t have the confidence of the president.”
Likewise, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Judiciary Committee, told Bloomberg News that he could find time to squeeze in some hearings for a new attorney general, despite saying in the past that the committee would be too busy.
Even the reported behind-the-scenes efforts by GOP legislators to prevent Trump from obstructing justice by firing Sessions are not really about permanently preventing him from obstructing justice. They’re about asking Trump to pretty-please wait until after the midterms.
Rather than engaging in oversight of the executive branch, the Republican-led Congress sees its primary role as protecting Trump. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said as much in a leaked recording of a closed-door talk with donors. “If Sessions won’t unrecuse and Mueller won’t clear the president, we’re the only ones” left to shield the president, he said.
Questions about Trump’s possible Russia ties aren’t the only ones that GOP legislators have been thwarting, by the way. Republicans have also been circulating a long list of executive-branch scandals that their Democratic colleagues have been begging to investigate, according to Axios.
If Republican lawmakers are unwilling to treat Congress as the equal branch of government that it is, they do have a choice. They can step aside, “spend more time with their families” and let the grown-ups — whether in the special counsel’s office or a different political party — do the job instead.