President Donald Trump’s ongoing campaign of abuse against his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is making liberals extremely nervous. Liberals, of course, despise Sessions, who’s a Trumpist in his blood and has used his control of the Justice Department to ruthless effect against immigrants and other minority communities. But the fear is that Trump will force Sessions out as a prelude to terminating the Justice Department’s special counsel investigation of the Russian government’s interference in the last election, preventing the country from ever getting to the bottom of whether the Trump campaign was part of the conspiracy.
I think these concerns are largely overblown, and not least because few people are less worthy of sympathy or support from liberal-minded people than Sessions.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to be alarmed about. To the contrary, the worst-case scenario is unimaginably bad. If Trump were to get his way, Sessions would resign under duress, Trump would (one way or another) seat a new attorney general who would refuse to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, before ultimately quashing it, and Republicans in Congress would let it all slide.
But as dependably pliant as congressional Republicans have been since Trump became the GOP nominee last year, there are many signs that Trump can’t actually get what he wants this time.
Trump is essentially trying to back into a Saturday Night Massacre-like scenario, in which the rest of his party does all the dirty work. Trump can claim Sessions resigned of his own accord. He can then cite the appointment power as his source of authority to replace Sessions. If Republicans abdicate their advice and consent responsibilities, that’s on them. If the new attorney general doesn’t recuse himself and then determines that special counsel Robert Mueller’s services are no longer needed, them’s the breaks. No Trump fingerprints.
But there are problems at every step, beginning with the fact that, as with everything sinister Trump does, the White House has already broken the fourth wall and explained the plot to an eager press corps.
Sessions, who is wise to Trump, and laboratory-built for the job of implementing Trump’s racist law enforcement agenda, is reportedly determined to hang on so long as Trump is too cowardly to fire him.
If Trump somehow forces Sessions out anyhow, or gets his hands dirty and requests Sessions’s resignation, he will have drawn the ire—if not the actual enmity—of Senate Republicans, who love their old colleague, and would feel at least a little guilty about turning a blind eye to it.
The lesson of the year is that it’s foolish to bank on Republican proclamations like these, whether they’re about health care votes or commitments to democracy, but these would be incredibly embarrassing positions to retreat from.
Trump is tempted to use his recess appointment power to end-run the Senate, apparently unaware that Democrats have the power to neutralize his recess appointment power for at least the next 18 months. Trump could deep-six his beleaguered attorney general, convinced he’s outmaneuvered all of his detractors, only to find himself stuck indefinitely with acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. He can mastermind the next Saturday Night Massacre, but he probably can’t do it without engaging in some of the wrongdoing directly.
In the meantime, Democrats can squeeze Republicans: make them choose between closing the door on Trump’s nefarious designs, enabling the destruction of the rule of law along the way, or confronting the GOP president directly.
Senator Lindsey Graham claims to be writing legislation that would subject Mueller’s firing to congressional review. Democrats could join that legislation and insist it be included in must-pass legislation to fund the government.
Democrats could likewise make public demands for commitments from Republicans not to confirm any senior Justice Department official who won’t commit to protecting the Mueller investigation, or to state the consequences Trump would face for firing Mueller.
There is risk here. Republicans have given next to no indication that, if Trump engineers Mueller’s ouster, they will behave any differently than they did when he fired FBI Director James Comey. But ultimately Democrats have little control over what Trump does, or over what Sessions does. That part is out of their hands. But liberals shouldn’t dread the fight that would ensue if Trump, as we’ve come to expect, takes the most authoritarian path laid out before him.