Donald Trump’s recent criticisms of his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, the goal of which is to force Sessions to resign from his office, reveal quite about the nature of Trump’s presidency. Trump’s cabinet members include some, like Rick Perry and Ben Carson who have little direct experience relevant to their jobs and almost no experience getting things done in Washington. Others, such as Betsy Devos and Scott Pruitt are conservative ideologues who seek to remake their departments accordingly. Others, like James Matthis are Washington insiders, vey much in the mainstream of Republican policy, but have no longstanding connection to the President. Among this group of cabinet members, Sessions is different. He is a Washington insider who knows how government works, but also has a strong personal and political connection to Trump. Sessions was the first member of the Senate to endorse Trump and played a significant role in his campaign. Sessions also has a longstanding relationship with Trump’s propagandist Steve Bannon who at one point tried to persuade Sessions himself to run for president.
Sessions is thus unusual among Trump’s cabinet because he shares the white nationalist-populist vision for America that was central to Trump’s campaign, and is competent enough to move forward with that agenda. At the Department of Justice, Sessions has already sought to empower law enforcement while limiting people’s ability to seek recompense from police abuse, strip transgeneder students of federal protection, prosecute more immigrants and strengthen punitive civil asset forfeiture policies.
Despite this, Sessions is being bullied out of his job by the President because he recused himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions’ decision to recuse himself was made at a time when it was a not quite clear just how much the old rules no longer applied, so he did what would have been absolutely essential in the pre-Trump era. Trump’s anger at Sessions springs from that decision because by recusing himself, Sessions acted as if his loyalty to his mission, and the Trump agenda was more important than his loyalty to Trump himself. Trump’s anger also is a reminder that for Donald Trump, everything is personal and everything is about Donald Trump. Trump made that very apparent when he complained that Sessions’ decision to recuse himself was “very unfair to the President,” suggesting that the job of the Attorney General is simply to protect the President.
That Trump wants his most effective cabinet member to resign because he was insufficiently protective of the President himself suggests that Trump is moving the country not towards the authoritarian white nationalist regime that Steve Bannon would like, but towards being a more straightforward kleptocracy. In that model, the role of the government is to enrich the President and those around him, rather than to remake the country based on an ideological vision. This does not mean that Trump is not racist-he is. However, his racism is less central to his governing philosophy than his desire to use government for his personal advantage.
Trump clearly does not like the Russia investigation, but could probably fire Robert Mueller himself. Trump may not need the Attorney General, or Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein to sign off on that decision. Trump could have Sessions continue in his job implementing the Trump agenda, and get rid of Mueller, but he doesn’t want that. Instead, he wants to humiliate Sessions until he resigns.
While seeing Sessions humiliated like this does not bring tears to they eyes of many progressives, African Americans, immigrants, LGBTQ people and others who see the Attorney General as a dangerous bigot, these events reveal a great deal about Trump’s presidency. Trump’s conduct here demonstrates that he sees his presidency as little more than the next step in a lifetime dedicated to avarice and megalomania. Sessions has come under attack, despite being probably the most effective cabinet member in terms of implementing Trump’s nefarious agenda, because he has not sufficiently dedicated himself to covering up Trump’s wrongdoing. Sessions decency here should not be exaggerated. He has never stood up to Trump, made a stance suggesting that the contacts between the campaign and Russia were wrong or called for more investigations, he simply recused himself from the investigation.
By going after Sessions, Trump has sent a very clear message to the rest of his cabinet, and indeed to the entire country, that in this kleptocracy, loyalty to the man at the top is the only thing that matters. Trump has made it very clear that this government is driven by the twin goals of staying in power and enriching the ruling Trump-Kushner family and even actively, and successfully, pursuing the Trump agenda, is much less important than that.
Photo: cc/Gage Skidmore