In an interview with the New York Times, President Trump sharply criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions, ripping his decision to recuse himself in the Russia matter. Trump stated that he'd never have selected Sessions for the job if he'd known the Alabaman would make the decision to step back from overseeing Russia-related investigations. Sessions made that call back in March after it was revealed that he'd offered questionable-to-inaccurate testimony during his confirmation process regarding contact with Russian officials over the course of the presidential campaign. After consulting with career attorneys and reviewing recusal protocols, the new Attorney General concluded that he was sufficiently compromised on the Russia issue as to remove himself from the decision-making process on questions related to it. Trump evidently remains quite displeased about this development:
TRUMP: Look, Sessions gets the job. Right after he gets the job, he recuses himself.
BAKER: Was that a mistake?
TRUMP: Well, Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.
HABERMAN: He gave you no heads up at all, in any sense?
TRUMP: Zero. So Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have — which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, “Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.” It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president. So he recuses himself. I then end up with a second man, who’s a deputy.
Writing at at the Lawfare blog, Benjamin Wittes runs down the sprawling list of federal law enforcement officials attacked by Trump in the Times interview, including several whom he personally elevated to their current roles. Wittes suggests that if Sessions had an ounce of self respect, he'd resign his post posthaste:
It is wildly improper for the President to talk about the attorney general in this fashion. The attorney general serves at his pleasure. If he is dissatisfied with Sessions’s performance, Trump can remove him. Unlike the FBI director, Sessions does not have a ten-year term that creates some normative expectation of retention. It would be, of course, inappropriate to fire the attorney general for having the temerity to follow Justice Department recusal policies on the advice of career lawyers, but it’s also inappropriate to whine publicly about his conduct without removing him...If Attorney General Jeff Sessions does not resign this morning, it will reflect nothing more or less than a lack of self respect on his part—a willingness to hold office even with the overt disdain of the President of the United States, at whose pleasure he serves, nakedly on the record...the President is openly expressing bitterness toward his attorney general for following the rules—because the rules don’t favor Trump’s interests. He wants an attorney general who will actively supervise the Justice Department, and the Russia investigation, in a fashion congenial to his interests, and he has no compunction about saying so explicitly. He made perfectly clear that he regrets appointing Sessions. He made equally clear that Sessions’s job is, in his mind, a personal service contract to him and that if Sessions couldn’t deliver on service to Trump, he shouldn’t have taken the position.
Read the entire piece, even if you disagree with some of the analysis. If you're a conservative, try to answer this question as honestly as possible: What would you be thinking and saying if it were President Obama conducting himself in this manner vis-a-vis law enforcement officials tied to an ongoing probe of alleged wrongdoing within his campaign or administration? A few points about this whole dust-up: First, on Sessions (who reportedly has offered to resign in the past), perhaps his view of the state of play is different. Perhaps he realizes that Donald Trump isn't an ordinary president, in that he is prone to mercurial airings of his simmering frustrations. It's unconventional, and maybe it's totally inappropriate, but it's Trump. He knew exactly what he was getting into, given his early endorsement of Trump, with whom he campaigned frequently. He realizes that Trump will blurt things out in unusual outbursts from time to time, reasoning that his best course of action is to take occasional flare-ups in stride and stay the course. Sure enough, Sessions is offering no indication that he has any plans to step aside:
Sessions says DOJ will continue to work hard to serve the "national interests," adds he plans to continue to serve as AG.— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) July 20, 2017
Second, I've seen some handwringing on Twitter from media types who are breathlessly repeating that the president refused to rule out firing Robert Mueller in his conversation with the Times. While that's technically true, here's how Trump handled that direct question:
HABERMAN: Would you fire Mueller if he went outside of certain parameters of what his charge is? [crosstalk]
SCHMIDT: What would you do?
TRUMP: I can’t, I can’t answer that question because I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Yes, he was harshly critical of Mueller and his team, alleging conflicts of interests and unfair partisanship (it's worth repeating that Mueller's reputation as a nonpartisan straight-shooter is strong). Yes, he made quite clear that he believes there was no reason to appoint a Special Counsel to this case, and that the whole endeavor is a political witch hunt. But no, he didn't even approach threatening to fire Mueller or disband the probe. If he did, it would be a political disaster; in spite of his exasperation, Trump probably understands this intuitively. Finally, it's been a rough week for Sessions, who's also coming under heavy fire from libertarians and conservatives for his newly-unveiled pro-civil asset forfeiture stance, which intensifies extraconstitutional government abuses of Americans' due process and private property rights. In my view, he was right to recuse himself on Russia, is at least arguably justified in maintaining his position, despite the president's public vote of no (or diminished) confidence, and wrong on this fresh policy. I'll leave you with this -- maybe the Secretary of Homeland Security will pull incoming presidential fire away from the Attorney General by openly criticizing Trump's Russia posture, on the record:
AP: "McMaster expressed his disapproval of Trump’s course [on Russia] to foreign officials" https://t.co/oGrpPf3FQz— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) July 20, 2017