Trump and Sessions: Unstoppable force meets immovable object
Since his bombshell New York Times interview, the president has clearly been angling for Sessions to resign. No, this is not some brilliant tactical move. This is not a coordinated event to distract from the health-care reform debacle happening in Congress. They simply don’t agree on the role of the attorney general.
The president wants an Eric Holder-style wingman leading the U.S. Justice Department. As White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci recently noted, Holder was “a pretty good hockey goalie for the president.” To extend the metaphor, it’s not the attorney general’s job to stop people from scoring on the president.
Republicans harangued President Barack Obama for using his attorneys general to push policy changes he couldn’t move through Congress. When Obama couldn’t win the immigration reforms he preferred, his attorney general changed law through a material enforcement modification within the Department of Justice.
Sessions doesn’t work like that. He’s aiming to enforce the law in a relatively uncomplicated way. Unlike his predecessors, Sessions does not see the Justice Department as a primary policymaking entity. Most of the “policies” Sessions has announced so far are simply ending those crafted by the Obama Justice Department.
Sessions also intends to keep doing his job until Trump fires him. That’s an increasingly costly proposition for Trump.
One U.S. senator after another has come out in support of Sessions. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, even fired off a tweet clarifying that there is no time in the committee’s schedule to confirm another attorney general this year.
Grassroots Republicans aren’t having any of Trump’s bullying either. Jeff Sessions was a champion of the average conservative long before the president ever showed up on the stage. President Trump’s recent suggestion that Sessions was somehow riding his coattails in Alabama simply isn’t true.
In fact, Sessions gained much of his grassroots popularity as an immovable object for another Republican president. In spite of tremendous pressure from George W. Bush, Sessions refused to budge on the president’s immigration reforms that included legal status for millions of illegal immigrants.
Let’s just say that Sessions has practice at holding his ground.
Yes, this situation is different. Sessions now serves at the pleasure of the president. The president’s moves over the next couple of weeks will indicate how he plans to proceed.
If Trump continues to take shots at Sessions, he’s trying to reduce the political cost of firing him. Trump masterfully deployed the technique during the campaign. By repeating negative statements about Sessions, Trump is hoping people start to believe them. The problem is that Sessions isn’t giving him much new material to work with; he’s simply doing his job. If the targeted barbs toward Sessions don’t let up, his tenure in the Justice Department won’t be long.
If Trump’s attacks start to fade, Sessions is probably in the clear for the near future. Trump isn’t the type to apologize or walk back his comments, but there’s plenty going on in Washington to distract from the strained relationship. In fact, Scaramucci’s wild comments to New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza might be enough for us to forget about Trump’s displeasure with Sessions altogether.
If Sessions survives, the Justice Department will operate at an arm’s length from the White House. Frankly, that’s exactly how it should be. If Trump succeeds at removing Sessions, he’ll likely struggle to find a replacement. After Trump has treated one of his longest and most loyal supporters so poorly, what chance does the next attorney general have if he or she disagrees with the president?
With Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus out, change in the executive branch seems inevitable. Even so, a number of factors are working in Sessions’ favor at this point. We shouldn’t be surprised if the unstoppable Trump has to find a way to work around his immovable attorney general.