Repeating the aggressive approach that he took during last year’s campaign, Donald Trump has stepped up his tyrannical assault on Jeffery Sessions, the beleaguered US Attorney General. Once a trusted campaign aide, the Alabama senator was the first senior Republican lawmaker to publicly endorse the property tycoon. At the time, Trump was widely ridiculed by all sides of the political aisle, both at home and abroad.
However, ever since Sessions recused himself from the investigation into the Kremlin’s role in subverting last year’s election, the AG has only fallen far from grace. And, as is typical of the president’s mercurial sense of loyalty, Sessions now finds himself cast out in the cold amidst the searing winds of Trumpian indifference.
“We all know Trump has little self-control of his emotions. And loyalty is a one-way street,” says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia: “He is extremely angry about the Russia probe, and he’s concluded that Sessions could have protected the president and didn’t.”
But, once again, Trump’s anger proves to be completely unfounded: Sessions was forced to step down from the enquiry after it emerged that he did in fact meet the Russian ambassador during last year’s campaign. At his confirmation hearing, he lied and said that he had no such contact. Thus on ethical and constitutional grounds, the attorney-general had no choice but to recuse himself.
But, as Trump demands loyalty without prejudice, the recusal marked a deep personal betrayal. And, more importantly, it removed his control over an escalating scandal which has steadily engulfed his six month old administration.
However, by leaving a power vacuum at the top, especially after Trump himself fired the head of the FBI James Comey for his relentless pursuit of the Russia enquiry, the deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein had no option but to fill it. And, owing to the enormous uproar that Comey’s sacking created amongst Democrats, Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller, a widely respected old Washington fixture, as special counsel.
And, whilst Trump may be directing his fury towards Sessions, he has no one to blame for this current imbroglio but himself. He alone is responsible for the appointment of the formidable Mueller who is not only a former FBI Director, but a personal friend of Comey.
And, to add insult to injury, Mueller now plans to expand his investigation into the president’s personal tax returns, and the Trump Organisation’s financial dealings with Russia. It is important to remember that the president refused to disclose said tax returns during last year’s election, despite it being the norm for all presidential candidates.
“The further Mueller progresses, the more Trump panics” writes Edward Luce in the FT: “His reactions betray his motives. Having refused to release his tax returns, he risks a constitutional crisis to stop US law enforcement officers from looking into his business dealings. The two are obviously connected. Sooner or later, serious investigators end up following the money. And, Mueller is nothing if not thorough.”
The news has certainly put the president in some rather hot water. At a press conference on Tuesday, Trump reiterated that he was “very disappointed” over Session’s recusal. The remarks came a few hours after the Tweeter-in-Chief excoriated the AG via twitter: “Attorney-general Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are emails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!”.
The attack followed last week’s scathing interview with the New York Times where he said that he would have never hired Sessions had he known that he would recuse himself.
It is unclear why Trump has not yet fired Sessions, but it may be because he is trying to drive the attorney-general out, whilst avoiding a fiasco remiscent of Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre. The president is thus now trying to discredit Sessions by accusing him of prejudice: “So why isn’t our beleaguered AG, looking into Crooked Hillary’s crimes & Russia relations?” he tweeted.
If the attorney-general does eventually get sacked, he will be the third person from the Justice Department which the president has disposed of. Trump clearly regards the office’s independence from the White House as an act of unforgivable insubordination: never mind that this is it’s purpose.
So, what happens next? It seems that Trump wants to replace Sessions with a new loyalist who is willing to remove Mueller and quash the troublesome Russian enquiry before it derails his already chaotic presidency. But, such an appointment would have to be approved by the Senate which is likely to call for a complete hands-off approach into Mueller’s Russia enquiry.
However, perhaps Trump is able to sidestep this thorny inconvenience. After all, once the Senate breaks for summer next month, the president can appoint anyone he wants as attorney-general until January 2019. According to the constitution, the US commander-in-chief is entitled to “fill up all vacancies” during this time.
If Trump does indeed end up getting rid of Mueller, a constitutional crisis could very well follow:
“Most lawyers say you cannot indict a sitting president even if he has repeatedly obstructed justice,” writes Luce: “If Mueller were sacked, in other words, no court would reinstate him. The same applies to Sessions, and as far down the chain as Trump cared to go. ... And, unless public opinion turns sharply against Trump, a Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely” to impeach him.
Nevertheless, none of this is able to mask the uneasy feeling that there is something very odious about Trump’s ties to Russia. After all, he seems willing to do anything to quash the enquiry, begging the question: what on earth is he hiding? As the old cliche goes: there’s no smoke without fire. Moreover, if the president was completely innocent, surely he would want any investigator to get to the bottom of the matter in order to clear his name?
It doesn’t help that Trump recently tweeted his belief that “all agree the US president has the complete power to pardon.” According to the American constitution, presidents “shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenders against the United States except in cases of impeachment.”
At this point, one has to ask whether an embattled president can pardon himself if he is prosecuted for federal crimes?
Although the high court has never weighed in on the matter, according to Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, such a question “could easily go either way.” But, as the Supreme Court wrote in a 1915 ruling, issuing a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt” and accepting one constitutes “a confession.”