Jeff Sessions’s long expected departure arrived the day after Trump’s electoral thumping. The timing of the announcement deflected attention from Trump’s defeat and ensured fresh supervision for Robert Mueller before he could break his election hiatus with new public actions. Any possible doubt that Trump orchestrated Sessions’s removal to curtail Mueller’s investigation was removed by his appointment of Matthew Whitaker, an outspoken TV talking head opponent of the investigation, as acting attorney general. Trump’s action accelerates our slow-moving constitutional crisis.
The ever-expanding chaos in the Trump administration has amped up concern that we are reaching the bursting point.
The departures of Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Hope Hicks, Rex Tillerson, Rob Porter, David Shulkin, John Dowd, and others launch a new phase in which Trump can surround himself with characters from his TV world and act even less responsibly. Trump has spewed ever more astonishing tweets disparaging the FBI, DOJ, Democrats, immigrants, and Amazon. Mueller’s net is tightening and, apparently, driving Trump toward desperation.
This is a phase to be dreaded – an endgame in which Trump will cast aside any remaining constraints, launching an orgy of firings, pardons, and maybe a couple of wars. Members of Congress heightened the concern by issuing statements cautioning Trump not to fire Bob Mueller and pushing for legislation to protect him.
Once again, the prospect that Robert Mueller will soon interview President Trump excited Russia investigation watchers this week. Sources suggested that the Mueller and Trump camps were in negotiations that could lead to an interview within two or three weeks.
Trump, on his way out the door to cavort with the wealthy and self-congratulatory in snowy Davos, confirmed the timeline and blurted out that he was eager to answer Mueller’s questions. He responded in the affirmative when a reporter asked if he would do so under oath. This brief exchange drove home how little we and the press understand about what is actually happening. The breaking revelation that Trump – in June! — ordered White House Counsel Don McGahn to tell the Justice Department to fire Mueller confirms that we still have much to learn.
Regarding the interview, there is the matter of timing. The suggestion that the interview is imminent comes from Trump’s team, which has issued a series of predictions that the investigation would soon conclude. They initially announced their expectation that it would be wrapped up by Thanksgiving, then the end of the year. The passage of each date has been marked by new revelations that appear to expand, rather than wind down the investigation. It seems quite possible that the announced imminence of the interview is another effort to please the boss by making it appear the end is near. Read more
Before I could begin this reflective look forward into 2018, the year exploded with tweets about the size of nuclear buttons, demands for prosecution of political opponents, new revelations of attempts to obstruct justice, and Fire and Fury everywhere. But, I’m still going to try.
I start with the caveat that predicting the future has become even more difficult in the era of an irrational president, a Republican party untethered from truth, and a special counsel who actually knows how to keep a secret and spring a surprise (George Papadopoulos!). That said, based on facts we now know, the following series of posts will – without attempting a comprehensive recounting of all of the evidence — discuss some key topics and what to look for. I’ll begin with the Russia investigation in the Department of Justice before moving on to Congress, the White House, and the 2018 election in future posts. In brief, although 2017 was chaotic, frightening, historic, and lightning-paced, it was only an appetizer for 2018. Read more
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ turn in the spotlight this week and events in Alabama left behind three major questions regarding the attorney general:
1. Does the Attorney General understand what a lie is?
At his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Sessions repeatedly took offense at insinuations that he had lied previously to Congress by denying his contacts with Russians and knowledge of the contacts of others on the Trump campaign. Indeed, he refused the opportunity to change parts of his testimony, which have been shown to be flatly incorrect. He met at least twice with the Russian ambassador; campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopolous told him at a meeting of his contacts with Russians; and another advisor, Carter Page, informed him that he was headed to Russia. Bizarrely, Sessions insisted that he did not recall the meeting with Papadopolous, but was quite certain he told him that arranging a meeting between Trump and Putin was a bad idea. He couldn’t remember anything else about the meeting.
Indeed, Sessions flaunted a severe case of testimonial amnesia throughout the hearing, particularly when asked about Russia. It is understandable that busy people occasionally forget things. And experience teaches that memory gaps sometimes expand with age. But Sessions’s total blackout on all things Russian is striking.
Sessions’s indignation that anyone would accuse him of not speaking the truth smacked of a man caught dissembling. Alternatively, Sessions’s concept of truth may have been dulled by the rigors of public life in the political arena where spin and the demands of self-aggrandizement too often prevail.
2. Will Sessions yield to pressure from President Trump and the tin foil helmet caucus of the Republican Party to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton?
At Tuesday’s oversight hearing, Republican members, particularly Jim Jordan of Ohio and Louis Gohmert of Texas, lobbied Sessions strongly to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate a vast conspiracy linking the Clinton Foundation, its donors, a uranium deal, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Susan Rice, David Petraeus, Jim Comey, Robert Mueller, Loretta Lynch, and others in nefarious activities. Gohmert produced a colorful chart connecting the supposed actors. As even Shep Smith of Fox News declared, this Uranium One conspiracy is a figment of fevered partisan imaginations.
Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd set the Department of Justice expatriate crowd atwitter by answering a letter from committee members, in which he stated that some of the matters referred to in their letter would be referred to career prosecutors who would investigate and make a recommendation regarding whether a special prosecutor should be appointed.
In normal times, Boyd’s letter would have been viewed as a pro forma response to another goofy demand from House members – thanks for your letter and we’ll refer it to the professionals in the Department for routine processing. In these far-from- normal times, however, Boyd’s letter triggered fears that Sessions was giving in to demands by Congressional Republicans and Trump that the Justice Department investigate Clinton. That response was reasonable in view of Trump’s repeated tweets demanding an investigation. The reaction showed the consequences of politicizing criminal law enforcement. Trump’s motive was to deflect attention from the tightening noose of the Russia investigation onto a target that always rankles his base – Hillary Clinton. But, in exploiting the criminal justice system for his own political salvation, Trump made it harder for the public to accept any action by DOJ as non-political.
Sessions, fortunately, gave the impression at the hearing that he would not appoint a special counsel without sufficient evidence to satisfy traditional DOJ standards. But he needs to do much more. He must speak out about the independence of the Department of Justice and the need to base prosecutorial judgments on law and facts without consideration of politics or personal favor. As attorney general, Robert Jackson delivered the most famous and powerful such address in 1940 in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice. It is time for our weak, beleaguered attorney general to do the same. The integrity of the institution he leads depends on it.
3. Will Sessions remain Attorney General?
Sessions has alienated his boss, who is livid over Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation rather that corrupt justice by protecting Trump from investigation. He is under pressure from Republican caucus members who take their lead from Trump and want to deflect the Russia investigation onto Hillary Clinton. Some Republican members are concerned about the inaccuracy of his testimony. House and Senate Democrats are uniformly appalled that Sessions is attorney general (many think he committed perjury), but now fear his departure because it would allow Trump to replace him with someone who would reclaim supervision of the Russia investigation and might be more likely to do Trump’s bidding than Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who now oversees the probe.
As if this stew weren’t sufficiently complex, Roy Moore dropped in. Moore, running for the seat Sessions vacated when he became Attorney General, came under pressure from much of the Republican establishment to drop out of the election after it became indisputable that he was a creepy predator who targeted girls and young women. By week’s end, his efforts to portray himself as a victim and perversely to weaponize Christianity in his defense appeared to be failing. Rather than let the seat go to the thoroughly estimable Democrat, Doug Jones (prosecutor of bombers of the 16th Street Baptist Church), Mitch McConnell and unidentified White House sources floated the notion that Republicans needed a strong, well-known and well-liked write-in candidate – none other than Jeff Sessions.
McConnell would like it because he thinks Sessions can win and keep the seat Republican. Trump loves the idea because he has been eager for Sessions’s departure since March. Federal law would allow Trump to appoint an acting attorney general for a minimum of 210 days who could assume control of the Russia investigation, including the power to fire Robert Mueller. He could appoint any currently serving official who was appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, which would allow him to choose from an array of loyal cronies.
The only sticking point is Jeff Sessions, who seems genuinely infatuated with being attorney general. Now, more than ever, he needs to speak out about the majesty of that job and its crucial role in protecting the rule of law. Robert Jackson already gave him a pretty good outline.