In an act of unusual forbearance, United States President Donald Trump waited a full 12 hours after the end of the midterm elections to sack Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Clearly, the president had been itching to get rid of Sessions for months. No matter that Sessions had been one of Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters, endorsing the then-candidate when no other Republican senator was willing to embrace the untethered reality TV star as a serious political force. But the early bromance quickly soured, and for most of his unhappy tenure at the helm of the Justice Department, Sessions became one of Trump’s favourite targets of ritualistic humiliation.
The offence? In March 2017, Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe when it had emerged that he had misremembered certain meetings with the Russians during the presidential election campaign. Trump likes to claim he doesn’t hold grudges — witness his recent campaigning for “lyin’ Ted” Cruz — but Sessions’ act was unpardonable. In recusing himself, the attorney general took control of the Russia probe out of the hands of a Trump loyalist, and handed it to Rod Rosenstein, where it remained until today.
Sessions placed loyalty to his office above fealty to his chief — the same sin that got James Comey axed. Only having fired Comey, Trump could not fire Sessions, too — at least, not without risking a firestorm that might threaten a president who had already demonstrated a strong fiery streak. That in any case is what Trump’s lawyers and advisers told him, and against his better instincts, Trump listened.
And so Sessions clung to his position. Cabinet officials serve at the pleasure of the president, but in this case, the beleaguered former Senator served at the president’s wrath. If Trump couldn’t directly fire Sessions, he could at least make his life miserable, targeting him with a steady stream of gratuitous and belittling insults.
But even that did not satisfy Trump. He quickly turned his fury against the entire Department of Justice, a vast federal bureaucracy with 100,000 employees, responsible for upholding the rule of law in the nation. In presidential tweets and interviews, the Department of Justice became rebranded the Department of “justice” — the scare quotes signalling an unprecedented attack by the nation’s chief executive on his own administration of justice.
Now the president can a breathe a little more easily. Sessions is gone, and in his place is Matthew Whitaker, who, as acting attorney general, formally takes charge of the Russia probe. Whitaker looks to be the kind of loyalist Trump lacked in Sessions. Whitaker has publicly warned Mueller against straying into Trump’s finances, calling any such probe, yes, a “witch hunt”. He has also publicly mused how one might go about eviscerating the Mueller investigation without formally disbanding the whole operation. All this makes it transparently clear that Whitaker should promptly recuse himself — which, alas, is precisely the reason why Trump has promoted him in the first place.
Warning against meddling
The rule of law is not thriving when a special counsel investigating a sitting president needs protection from the attorney general. But it does raise the question where the protection will come from. Several Senate Republicans, including the freshly-elected Mitt Romney, who appears eager to take on John McCain’s mantle as the Republican party’s moral conscience, have already warned against any meddling with Mueller. It is also possible that Mueller and his team of seasoned savvy prosecutors have been preparing for this day for a long time.
Then there are the House Democrats and their new majority. It should come as no surprise that Trump would fire Sessions to coincide with the Democrats’ victory. In so doing, he steals their headlines while delivering a threat. Stop me at your own peril. It will be war.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Lawrence Douglas is the James J Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, at Amherst College, Massachusetts.