It has been obvious at least since President Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey — a shocking decision that he acknowledged was done with “this Russia thing” in mind — that Trump is being driven to bizarre and desperate lengths by the FBI investigation into possible ties between his presidential campaign and Russia.
Now Trump’s aversion to the investigation he has wrongly characterized as a “witch hunt” has led him to savage his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. On Tuesday, the president continued that attack, in what is either a prelude to firing Sessions or an attempt to humiliate him into resigning.
Either outcome would make it easier for Trump to engineer the dismissal of Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is leading the investigation into Russian meddling with last year’s election, connections between Russia and the Trump campaign and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” — including, quite possibly, financial transactions involving Trump and his family.
Trump’s ongoing efforts to impede the investigation through both public and private threats and irresponsible action are deeply inappropriate, to say the least. This is a test of character for Republican members of Congress. They must make it clear to the president that going after Sessions as a way of muscling Mueller will have consequences.
In this country, presidents do not settle old political scores with their rivals by having them charged with crimes.
In a series of tweets on Tuesday, Trump belittled the attorney general who, as a senator from Alabama, was one of Trump’s earliest and staunchest political supporters. Early in the morning he tweeted: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!”
This followed a tweet a day earlier in the same “lock-her-up” vein: “So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?”
In other words, he is again calling for the prosecution of his opponent in last year’s election, in a matter in which she has been cleared of wrongdoing. Viewed most charitably, this is a cynical example of misdirection designed to take the focus off his own misbehavior and to whip up enthusiasm among his base voters. But what if a prosecutor were, God forbid, to take him seriously? That would be truly distressing. In this country, presidents do not settle old political scores with their rivals by having them charged with crimes.
Trump began his abuse of Sessions last week when he told The New York Times that he would never have offered him the attorney general’s job if he knew that Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia investigation. He reiterated that argument at a news conference Tuesday. Both times, what he seemed to be saying was that he would never have hired Sessions had he known that Sessions would pursue justice rather than cover up for him. In the real world, however, Sessions’ recusal was ethically obligatory because of both his enthusiastic participation in Trump’s campaign and his misleading testimony at his Senate confirmation hearings about his meetings with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.
If Sessions were to be fired or quit, Trump could name a replacement who would take over supervision of Mueller — and potentially be in a position to carry out an order by the president to dismiss the special counsel. At Tuesday’s news conference, Trump declined to say whether he wanted Sessions to resign, but confirmed that he was “very disappointed” in the attorney general.
We opposed Sessions’ confirmation and we strenuously disagree with his positions on civil rights, sentencing, immigration and other issues. But it’s not Sessions’ wrongheaded conservative views, which echo the president’s, that are putting his tenure in jeopardy; it’s his adherence to ethical standards that any principled attorney general would abide by.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had it right: “President Trump’s tweet today suggesting Atty. Gen. Sessions pursue prosecution of a former political rival is highly inappropriate. Prosecutorial decisions should be based on applying facts to the law without hint of political motivation. To do otherwise is to run away from the long-standing American tradition of separating the law from politics regardless of party.”
If Trump disregards this warning, Congress must make sure that he pays the price.