By way of introduction, do recall what we said earlier today:
Donald Trump went on another Twitter tirade this morning (he actually had a mini-meltdown last night too, but it was tame by his standards) and, in a bizarre development, called Jeff Sessions “beleaguered.”
That’s strange for two reasons:
- that’s a pretty big word for Trump, who over the weekend proved (again), that he can’t spell “counsel”
- the reason Sessions is “beleaguered” in the first place is thanks to Trump himself, who threw the AG under the bus in a New York Times interview last week,
Following Comey’s dismissal in the current administration, the deputy attorney general appointed a special counsel and President Trump nominated, and the Senate will likely confirm, a highly respected and experienced new FBI director. Something like regular order has seemingly come to pass.
Appearances may have deceived, however. One need only look at the events of this last week, culminating in the leaks to the Washington Post that raised questions about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ account of his dealings with campaign representatives of the Russian government. The press reports on those dealings followed the President’s extraordinary attack on Mr. Sessions in an interview with the New York Times, in which Mr. Trump went out of his way to express his loss of confidence in Mr. Sessions. He complained about the attorney general’s recusal in the Russia matter, and then went so far as to say that, had he known of this likelihood that Mr. Sessions would recuse, the president would not nominated him. Put another way, Mr. Trump would not have chosen a nominee who intended to follow the standards for recusal set out in departmental regulations. And then, in a foreshadowing of the Post story to come, the president sternly criticized as “bad” the answers Sessions offered in his testimony to Congress on his contacts with Russian officials.
These assaults alone constituted a blow to the standing of the Department of Justice. It is hard to recall any similar instance in which a president went so savagely after a member of his cabinet, and certainly not the attorney general of the United States. He also attacked the deputy attorney general, denounced Mr. Comey as a serial liar, and cast aspersions on the integrity of the Mueller investigation.
Mr. Sessions responded that he would not resign. On the very following day, the Post reported in greater depth on his conversations with the Russian Ambassador to the United States and the doubts these contacts raised about the completeness or truthfulness of his testimony to Congress. Both current and former officials were the sources for the story. Who, and why now? It is not out of the question that these leaks originated out of the White House, or at its direction, to put additional pressure on Mr. Sessions to resign.
Fom the perspective of the Trump legal team, there are still advantages to a White House coup against Mr. Sessions.
Of course, Mr. Trump could fire Sessions at any time or apply even more pressure on him to resign. What is chilling about this particular episode, if the White House is the source of the leaks, is the misuse of classified intelligence to incapacitate the department’s leadership. Watergate analogies come cheap, but this one is apt. Nixon and his senior staff tried to engage the Central Intelligence Agency, but with only brief success, in pressing the FBI to limit the investigation. The CIA leadership made a pass at following this order and then stepped back, as did the FBI Director Patrick Gray. Should the White House of the current administration have misused classified intelligence to alter the chain of command at the Department of Justice in a bid to influence the course of the the Russia investigation, it would have also abused its relationship to the intelligence community—except that this time, this need not have occurred with the willing participation of the intelligence community leadership.
Now the president has effectively denied any such abuse. On Saturday, he tweeted a denunciation of the leaks about Mr. Sessions. Observers will make what they may of this complaint, but some will recall that, in the “unmasking” matter, this administration has once before improperly shared intelligence information outside normal procedures to achieve a political objective. In another action involving the intelligence community still closer in kind to the Watergate experience, the president tried to recruit the support of the directors of the Office of Director of National Intelligence and of the National Security Agency in curbing Mr. Comey’s investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
All this is far from regular order, and worse. And from the last week to this one, this continues. Mr. Trump tweeted Monday morning that his attorney general was “beleaguered,” without acknowledgement that he, the president, had helped bring about this state of siege with his attacks on Mr. Sessions. But he apparently meant, too, that Mr. Sessions in his weakened condition was not doing this job, which in Mr. Trump’s view appears to require a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton. In this one tweet, the president both assailed his attorney general and declared his wish for a specific criminal prosecution—of his 2016 general election opponent. It is difficult to cite a starker example of the trashing of a norm in a president’s relationship to the Department of Justice.
The grave danger in the president’s conception of the Department of Justice, and of his relationship to it, arises from the same source as other risks of his governing style: his ethics. He cannot distinguish between the public interest and his own, and so he cannot or will not appreciate how the observation of that distinction is crucial to the integrity of government institutions. This is a unique threat to the impartial and professional administration of law enforcement.