On Wednesday, President Donald Trump delivered his first counterpunch to the results of Tuesday’s midterm elections by forcing the resignation of Jeff Sessions, his embattled attorney general. With a new Democrat-controlled House of Representatives that will strengthen the Russia investigations against him, the president’s firing of Sessions ― the departing attorney general’s resignation letter made clear it was the president’s decision ― demonstrates that Trump is preparing for and even stoking, as is his tendency, a vicious battle.
Trump’s relationship with Sessions has often been strained and combative, a surprising development given how much the two men agree on but also revealing of the president’s only real agenda: himself.
Sessions was an early endorser of Trump’s presidential ambitions, a key step toward legitimacy for Trump’s candidacy when so many other Republican leaders were hesitant to get behind his campaign. For Trump, the endorsement signaled Sessions’ loyalty ― the characteristic he values in others above all else.
It didn’t hurt either that Sessions had a long career advancing a far-right political agenda that matches so neatly with Trump’s own policy goals, to the extent that he has any. As senator, Sessions opposed almost all forms of immigration, a hard-line stance that put him out of step with even most Republicans at the time. Earlier in his career, Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship had been prevented by the Senate due to allegations of racism during his time as a U.S. attorney in Alabama. That black mark on his résumé would have kept Sessions out of most Republican presidents’ Cabinets. But it may have actually helped endear Sessions to Trump, who seems to think the real problem of American racism is how the charge of it hurts white Americans.
Despite all this common ground, Sessions lost Trump’s favor shortly after becoming attorney general when he recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation in early 2017. Sessions’ critics rightly praised his decision as a proper adherence to the law and a hopeful sign he would honor his obligation to the American people. But for Trump, Sessions’ recusal represented a personal betrayal and a violation of what he saw as Sessions’ duty to him.
“I said, ‘What kind of a man is this?’” Trump ranted to Fox News in an interview this year about how Sessions’ recusal had infuriated him. On Twitter, Trump has blasted Sessions as “VERY weak” and “DISGRACEFUL,” while privately mocking him as “Mr. Magoo.” All of this pointed toward Sessions’ eventual firing. The only question was when.
The irony, of course, is that Sessions has pursued and accomplished Trump’s political agenda more effectively than any other Cabinet member. On immigration, Sessions, working with presidential adviser Stephen Miller, set in place the “zero tolerance” policy for illegal immigration that led to the forced separation of families at the southern border and has created a tremendous backlog of cases in immigration courts. He has gone after MS-13 with vigor while loosening oversight of law enforcement officials. Sessions has redefined whose civil rights the Justice Department would protect and backed voting rights restrictions.
For a presidential administration that can’t point to a lot of political accomplishments, Sessions achieved notable successes for Trumpism. But those don’t matter much to a man whose presidency has always really been less about any coherent policy agenda than it is about the simple pursuit of his own self-interests and, with increasing evidence of a variety of scandals, his self-protection.
Accordingly, that meant Sessions had to go, especially with the incoming Democratic majority able to provide some level of protection for special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation. In choosing Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general in Sessions’ place, Trump made clear that the only thing he’s looking for in the position is someone who will work to thwart the Russia investigation.
Whitaker has certainly indicated he is committed to that task. In an op-ed written for CNN in 2017, Whitaker wrote that Mueller’s Russia investigation was “going too far.” Whitaker has also voiced his opposition to Mueller’s team possibly investigating the president and his family members’ finances, one of Trump’s biggest concerns. “The president is absolutely correct,” Whitaker wrote of Trump’s statement that such a move would be a “violation.” Elsewhere, Whitaker has expressed his support for decreasing Mueller’s budget so much that the investigations can’t continue.
Whitaker’s willingness to be Trump’s defender rather than the law’s is certainly why he has been chosen. It’s also yet another clear sign that Trump knows he’s guilty and needs to assemble the most loyal team around him, especially inside the Justice Department.
As a man who built his business career and public persona on lies and criminality, Trump’s attention to his ego and his self-protection are one and the same. In so many ways, Sessions showed his loyalty to the president, but in one crucial decision he did not go along with Trump’s plan to place himself above the law. That’s what mattered most to the president.
In announcing the selection of his acting attorney general, Trump tweeted that Whitaker “will serve our Country well.” But we know that Trump’s America is a nation of one.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”