On Monday, the New York Times reported that Trump Grows Discontented With Attorney General Jeff Sessions:
The discontent was on display on Monday in a series of stark early-morning postings on Twitter in which the president faulted his own Justice Department for its defense of his travel ban on visitors from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Mr. Trump accused Mr. Sessions’s department of devising a “politically correct” version of the ban — as if the president had nothing to do with it.
In private, the president’s exasperation has been even sharper. He has intermittently fumed for months over Mr. Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election, according to people close to Mr. Trump who insisted on anonymity to describe internal conversations. In Mr. Trump’s view, they said, it was that recusal that eventually led to the appointment of a special counsel who took over the investigation.
Let’s be clear, Department of Justice rules required Attorney General Sessions to recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation. It is ordinary protocol and was to be expected. Trump is angry at Sessions because he abided by Justice department rules, rather than create a protracted legal dispute over recusal, and he removed himself from the ability to exert influence over the direction of the investigation, which indicates that Trump intended to exert undue influence over the Attorney General to affect the course of the Trump-Russia investigation (otherwise known as obstruction of justice).
By Tuesday evening, the Times was reporting that Sessions Is Said to Have Offered to Resign:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered to resign in recent weeks as he told President Trump he needed the freedom to do his job, according to two people who were briefed on the discussion.
The president turned down the offer, but on Tuesday, the White House declined to say whether Mr. Trump still had confidence in his attorney general.
“I have not had that discussion with him,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, told reporters, responding to questions about whether the president had soured on Mr. Sessions.
Mr. Spicer’s remarks came after The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump had vented intermittently about Mr. Sessions since the attorney general recused himself from any Russia-related investigations conducted by the Justice Department. Mr. Trump has fumed to allies and advisers ever since, suggesting that Mr. Sessions’s decision was needless.
He has also blamed Mr. Sessions for the fallout from an executive order that the president signed for a travel ban on seven primarily Muslim countries, which courts have blocked.
The situation between Mr. Sessions and Mr. Trump has grown so tense that the attorney general told Mr. Trump in recent weeks that he needed the freedom to do his job and that he could resign if that was what was wanted, according to the two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House matters. Mr. Trump did not take him up on the offer.
Greg Sargent of the Washington Post analyzes, Trump is now raging at Jeff Sessions. This hints at a deeply unsettling pattern.
Trump appears worryingly unable to contemplate his own role in bringing about the special counsel. The firing of FBI Director James B. Comey led to reports that Trump allegedly demanded Comey’s loyalty and to Trump’s admission that he fired Comey over the Russia probe. This revealed that the Justice Department’s memo providing Trump his initial rationale for the firing (Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton probe) was bogus. Which led to the special counsel.
Beyond this, though, note this: Trump’s seething anger at Sessions is disconcertingly similar to the anger that led him to fire Comey. As the Times previously reported, Trump privately “burned” as he watched Comey testify to Congress about Russia’s efforts to tip the election to Trump, and was “particularly irked” when Comey conceded his own intervention, via a letter about Clinton’s emails, may have influenced the outcome, which Trump “took to demean his own role in history.” The Post added that Trump was “infuriated” at the FBI’s failure to investigate and stop leaks, which have led to news accounts detailing what the Russia probe was finding.
Both Comey and Sessions enraged Trump because in some manner or other, they failed to show a level of loyalty to Trump that would have trumped (as it were) legitimate processes. Comey kept publicly validating the Russia investigation (which Trump dismisses as nothing but “Fake News”) and would not make it disappear by stopping leaks about it. Sessions recused himself to display (nominal) independence, which Trump somehow interpreted as a lapse into weakness that led to the special counsel, further affirming the probe’s weightiness.
Students of authoritarianism see a pattern taking shape
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University who writes extensively on authoritarianism and Italian fascism, told me that a discernible trait of authoritarian and autocratic rulers is ongoing “frustration” with the “inability to make others do their bidding” and with “institutional and bureaucratic procedures and checks and balances.”
“Trump doesn’t respect democratic procedure and finds it to be something that gets in his way,” Ben-Ghiat said. “The blaming of others is very typical of autocrats, because they have difficulty listening to a reality that doesn’t coincide with their version of it. It’s part of the authoritarian temperament to blame others when things aren’t working.”
Trump expects independent officials “to behave according to personal loyalty, as opposed to following the rules,” added Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University who wrote “On Tyranny,” a book of lessons from the 20th century. “For Trump, that is how the world is supposed to work. Trump doesn’t understand that in the world there might truly be laws and rules that constrain a leader.”
Snyder noted that authoritarian tendencies often go hand in hand with impatience at such constraints. “You have to have morality and a set of institutions that escape the normal balance of administrative practice,” Snyder said. “You have to be able to lie all the time. You have to have people around you who tell you how wonderful you are all the time. You have to have institutions which don’t follow the law and instead follow some kind of law of loyalty.”
It seems obvious that early worries about an unbound authoritarian Trump — fears that our institutions would not hold up or that Trump would bulldoze them — now look overblown. But nonetheless, echoes of these traits do appear present. The nonstop lying and endless attacks on the news media appear designed to obliterate shared agreement on the legitimate institutional role of the press in holding Trump accountable to some semblance of shared truth and reality. Importantly, many of Trump’s favorite lies exaggerate the significance of his electoral victory: There’s the claim that Trump would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal voters; the buffoonish efforts to inflate his inaugural crowd sizes; and the assertion that former president Barack Obama wiretapped his phones, showing that he, too, had been illicitly targeted during the election.
Meanwhile, Trump’s underlings must constantly find ever-more-creative ways of propping up those lies: a “voting fraud” commission; Sean Spicer’s assaults on the media for minimizing Trump’s crowd sizes; the internal hunt for “evidence” of the Obama wiretap; and so forth. But the Russia probe persists. It plainly nags at Trump because he believes it undercuts his legitimacy. Sessions and Comey have both failed to make it go away. Trump is reportedly raging about that failing, and even seems to have fired Comey over it. And Comey hasn’t even told his side of the story in public yet.
Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal editorialized on Tuesday The Buck Stops Everywhere Else (excerpt):
Some people with a propensity for self-destructive behavior can’t seem to help themselves, President Trump apparently among them. Over the weekend and into Monday he indulged in another cycle of Twitter outbursts and pointless personal feuding that may damage his agenda and the powers of the Presidency.
* * *
Mr. Trump’s more consequential eruption was against Mr. Trump’s Justice Department. He was evidently responding to a segment on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe ” about his executive order temporarily suspending immigration entry from six countries with a history of terrorism.
“People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want,” Mr. Trump wrote. “I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” Mr. Trump added that “The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down politically correct version they submitted to S.C.”
These comments are reckless on multiple levels. The original blunderbuss order was rolled out on the Friday night of Mr. Trump’s first week as President with zero public explanation and little internal vetting. White House staffers from the Steve Bannon wing preferred the stun-grenade approach, but Mr. Trump’s legal team convinced him to sign a legally bulletproof revision in March because they preferred to win in court.
* * *
If Mr. Trump’s action is legal on the merits, he seems to be angry that his lawyers are trying to vindicate the rule of law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be justified if he resigned, and this is merely the latest incident in which Mr. Trump popping off undermined his own lawyers. The White House spent days explaining that the President fired James Comey on the counsel of Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, only for Mr. Trump to tell an interviewer that he planned to dismiss the FBI director in any case. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has also suggested that the temporary visa shutdown is not an “immigration ban.”
If this pattern continues, Mr. Trump may find himself running an Administration with no one but his family and the Breitbart staff. [He already is.] People of talent and integrity won’t work for a boss who undermines them in public without thinking about the consequences. And whatever happened to the buck stops here?
* * *
In other words, in 140-character increments, Mr. Trump diminished his own standing by causing a minor international incident, demonstrated that the loyalty he demands of the people who work for him isn’t reciprocal, set back his policy goals and wasted time that he could have devoted to health care, tax reform or “infrastructure week.” Mark it all down as further evidence that the most effective opponent of the Trump Presidency is Donald J. Trump.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a fact witness not only in the Trump-Russia investigation, but in the subsequent firing of James Comey and the broader obstruction of justice investigation by Special Investigator Robert Mueller. Comey Told Sessions: Don’t Leave Me Alone With Trump:
Mr. Comey believed Mr. Sessions should protect the F.B.I. from White House influence, the officials said, and pulled him aside after a meeting in February to tell him that private interactions between the F.B.I. director and the president were inappropriate. But Mr. Sessions could not guarantee that the president would not try to talk to Mr. Comey alone again, the officials said.
Note: The conversation I want to know more about is, after Trump dismissed Vice President Pence and Attorney General Sessions from his office to pressure FBI Director Comey to drop the Trump-Russia investigation, what was Trump’s follow-up conversation with Pence and Sessions afterwords about Comey’s response? This would establish their knowledge and possible complicity in Trump’s obstruction of justice, for which they are also liable.
And then there is this: Coats told associates Trump asked him if he could intervene with Comey on Russia probe:
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told associates in March that President Trump asked him if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe, according to officials.
* * *
The events involving Coats show the president went further than just asking intelligence officials to deny publicly the existence of any evidence showing collusion during the 2016 election, as The Washington Post reported in May. The interaction with Coats indicates that Trump aimed to enlist top officials to have Comey curtail the bureau’s probe.
For students of history, this is exactly the “smoking gun” obstruction of justice in the Nixon tapes that led to Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate scandal. For an excellent summary, see Lawrence O’Donnell On New Donald Trump Revelations: ‘This Is Watergate’ | The Last Word | MSNBC.
Jeff Sessions should submit his resignation and cooperate fully with Robert Mueller’s investigation, and be done with Trump if he wants to walk away with any integrity.