In July 2017, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) assured us there would be “holy hell to pay” if President Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Key GOP senators said they wouldn’t even hold hearings on a replacement. Even a few months ago, two rank-and-file Republican senators warned that they might not vote to replace Sessions if Trump fired him. They worried — either publicly or privately — that Trump would use the move to interfere with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
On Wednesday, Trump effectively fired Sessions — but without much GOP pushback. And the new acting attorney general, as some feared, will reportedly take oversight of the Russia investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
It is a huge, Trump-forced overhaul of an investigation involving himself — an event perhaps on a par with the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. Except this time the reaction was more muted.
The episode is perhaps the most pronounced example to date of how Trump desensitizes the public and GOP senators, sometimes over many months, into accepting some of his most controversial ideas.
Trump needled and attacked Sessions publicly for well more than a year. Most times, talk turned to whether Sessions would survive — whether Trump had finally had enough of the man whose recusal from the Russia investigation Trump had acknowledged as his chief complaint against the attorney general.
The suggestions — often implicit rather than directly floated — seem outlandish and ridiculous at first, and they draw the condemnations and cautions you’d expect, even from Trump’s Republican allies. But then Trump keeps at it. As he bangs the drum over and over, the innuendo becomes less newsworthy, fewer news media consumers tune in, and the apocalyptic predictions begin to seem repetitive or even overwrought. GOP senators lose the will to fight Trump, perhaps recognizing that he is going to do anyway whatever he aims to do or that it is no longer worth spending their time and political capital to try to stop him. Trump forces them to prove they’re serious about standing in his way; they seldom are.
And in the case of Sessions, Republicans started bargaining with Trump. You can do it, senators like Graham began suggesting back in August, but just not before the 2018 midterm elections. The rhetorical deal they cut with Trump was so obvious that virtually nobody was surprised Trump let Sessions go this week. It might have been surprising that it came just a day after the election, but we knew it was probably coming very soon.
Let’s take this all back to the summer of 2017. Graham said at the time that Trump’s firing Sessions would be “the beginning of the end” of his presidency. Trump had just fired Comey, and then suggested that he had done it because of the Russia investigation. Given that Trump had repeatedly bemoaned Sessions’s recusal from that probe, it would have been obvious what Trump was up to.
But is it any less obvious today? Trump has also successfully targeted Comey’s chief deputy at the FBI, Andrew McCabe, who was fired the day before his retirement benefits kicked in. He has also mused about getting rid of Rosenstein. And he has not really enunciated any new reasons for getting rid of Sessions, apart from the Russia probe. Just three weeks ago, in an interview with Fox News, Trump again made clear that his chief complaint was with Sessions’s not being in place for the Russia investigation.
“Jeff Sessions should have never let it happen; he should have never recused himself,” Trump said. “I mean, here’s a man who recused himself. Why wouldn’t you say, ‘I’m going to recuse myself’? I wouldn’t put him in that position.”
Just as with Comey, Trump had signaled that the termination was, at its core, about Russia. The narrative did not change. But Trump did draw out the string on it — to the point where what had once seemed shocking became significantly less so.
That may not matter, legally speaking, in how Mueller might view Sessions’s removal in the context of obstruction of justice. But this will ultimately be up to Congress, through possible impeachment proceedings, which means public perception matters. And for the better part of 16 months, Trump has steadily diluted this issue to the point where people — and GOP senators — are suddenly willing to swallow it.