Jeff Sessions: This Time, It’s Personal – The New Yorker
The Attorney General of the United States supervises all federal prosecutors, and one of the rituals of the job involves visiting the U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the nation. When Jeff Sessions, who is now (that is, at this precise moment) the Attorney General, stopped in at the Philadelphia office the other day, President Trump had already made the first of what would be several public critiques of the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer. On this occasion, Sessions did not respond directly, but seemed to make an almost poignant attempt to reingratiate himself with his boss. Departing from his prepared remarks, he said, “I do my best every day to be faithful to the laws of the Constitution of this United States and to fulfill the goals of the President that I share.” The President, apparently, was unappeased, because during the next several days he continued his stream of spoken and tweeted insults, calling Sessions “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” and declaring himself “very disappointed” with his Attorney General.
On one level, this exchange resembled a reality-show version of a reality show, in which Sessions, a long-in-the-tooth apprentice, sought to avoid hearing Trump tell him, “You’re fired.” But this black comedy of manners obscured a clearer tragedy of state. Trump wasn’t taunting Sessions because of any policy differences between them but, rather, as usually seems to be the case with this President, for personal reasons. The core of the President’s grievance is that the Attorney General recused himself from the investigation into possible Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election, thereby setting in motion the process that led to the appointment of Robert Mueller, the special counsel. Sessions did the right thing; according to prosecutorial ethics, he cannot supervise a review of a campaign in which he played a prominent role. Trump’s willful misunderstanding of the obligations of an Attorney General reflects a larger flaw in his Presidency and in his character—his apparent belief that his appointees owe their loyalty to him personally, rather than to the nation’s Constitution and its laws, and, more broadly, to the American people.
Every President has wide latitude in directing his appointees to implement the policy goals on which he campaigned, and no member of the Cabinet has worked more assiduously to advance Trump’s agenda than Sessions. He has reversed the Obama Administration’s commitment to voting rights, which had been reflected in Justice Department lawsuits against voter-suppression laws in North Carolina and Texas. He has changed an Obama-era directive to federal prosecutors to seek reasonable, as opposed to maximum, prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Similarly, he has revived a discredited approach to civil forfeiture, which will subject innocent people to the loss of their property. He has also backed away from the effort, championed by his predecessors Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, to rein in and reform police departments, like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, that have discriminated against African-Americans.
Although candidate Trump promised to protect L.G.B.T. rights, President Trump last week vowed to remove transgender service members from the armed forces, and Sessions’s Justice Department, along the same lines, took the position in court that Title VII, the nation’s premier anti-discrimination law, does not protect gay people from bias. Most of all, Sessions has embraced the issue that first brought him and Trump together: the crackdown on immigration. Sessions’s subordinates have defended the President’s travel ban on refugees and people from six majority-Muslim countries, and Sessions has stepped up enforcement of the laws that prevent undocumented immigrants from settling in the United States.
All these initiatives are unwise, unjust, and counterproductive, but they nevertheless represent the kind of change that tends to occur when an Administration of one political party takes over from the other. Elections, it is often noted, have consequences. President Trump’s behavior, however, represents a different kind of change—one that threatens the basic norms underlying our system of government. No President in recent history has treated his Attorney General solely as a political, or even as a personal, functionary. When Alberto Gonzales, who served as the Attorney General under George W. Bush, fired U.S. Attorneys for failing to do the bidding of the Republican Party, Gonzales, quite properly, lost his job, too. He had violated a principle that, until now, seemed inviolate: that the Attorney General serves the public, not the political interests of the President who appoints him.
Trump’s fixation on the personal allegiance of members of his Administration also led to his decision to fire James Comey as the F.B.I. director. As Comey recounted in his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Trump repeatedly pressed him for his loyalty—demands that Comey tried to finesse, until the President abruptly ended his tenure. Congress set the term of F.B.I. directors at ten years, in order to establish a standard of political independence for them; no President had heretofore violated that tradition out of personal or political pique. But, as bad as the decision to fire Comey was, and as lamentable as Trump’s attempted defenestration of Sessions is, the President may be heading toward even more dramatic departures from American norms in the near future.
Trump now seems set on terminating Mueller’s investigation, which he could attempt to do by directing the head of the Justice Department (whoever that winds up being) to fire him. This, of course, would be reminiscent of President Nixon’s determination, in October, 1973, to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. But a dismissal of Mueller would be worse. Nixon clashed with Cox over what was at least an arguable matter of principle—specifically, whether the prosecutor had the right to subpoena the White House tapes. Trump wants Mueller gone simply because he doesn’t want to be investigated. An order to fire Mueller would be an abuse of power, but one in keeping with the way that Trump has conducted his Presidency. On the Saturday night that Cox was fired, he said, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people” to decide. So it remains today. ♦
Powered by WPeMatico