Trump Fired His Most Effective Lieutenant

The outgoing attorney general did more to enact the president’s priorities than any other member of the Cabinet, but that didn’t save him from White House hostility.

The paradox of Jeff Sessions’s tenure as attorney general is that no member of the Trump administration was so beleaguered and disparaged by President Trump, but no member got as much done.

Even as he endured persistent verbal abuse from the president, Sessions steamed forward on a range of conservative social-policy priorities, aggressively reorienting the Justice Department’s stances on immigration, civil rights, and criminal justice, among other issues. In an administration plagued by incompetent and ineffective figures, Sessions was a paragon of efficacy—a distinction that horrified his many opponents, but did nothing to win Trump’s trust or affection.
  • When it came time for Trump to pull the plug on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as he had promised he would during the 2016 campaign, the president got cold feet, but Sessions was happy to be the public face of the withdrawal. It was Sessions who
  • tried to follow through (unsuccessfully) on Trump’s threat to cut off funding to sanctuary cities. It was Sessions who issued new guidance to immigration judges. And, most prominent, it was Sessions who
  • went to the border to announce the Trump administration’s decision to separate migrant children from their parents.
Sessions openly said the plan to split families up was intended to deter migrants, even as other administration officials said otherwise. The policy was met with widespread and appropriate horror, and Trump eventually pulled back—but he had backed the plan before that, and Sessions had followed through.
.. But these weren’t just Sessions’s pet issues. They were Trump’s as well. Hardline immigration policies, giving police free rein, fighting phantom voter fraud—these were all signature Trump projects. Sessions had been the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump, and Trump took from him a range of policy concepts—especially on immigration—as well as a top adviser, Stephen Miller.
But Sessions’s stewardship of those projects didn’t return him to favor with Trump, who, according to Bob Woodward’s book Fear, called Sessions “mentally retarded” and a “dumb Southerner.”
.. When McGahn’s departure was announced in August, I wrote that he’d been the most effective person in the West Wing, through his stewardship of judicial appointments. But Trump disliked and distrusted McGahn, and seemed eager to have him gone.
.. Of course, the same issue poisoned both Sessions’s and McGahn’s relationships with Trump: the Russia investigation, and especially Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s takeover of it.
.. Trump was angry that neither man had protected him. He raged at Sessions’s lack of “loyalty” and complained that Attorney General Eric Holder had “totally protected” Barack Obama. (What he meant by that is unclear.) He twice instructed McGahn to fire Mueller, and McGahn twice refused, once threatening to resign.
.. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker assumes control of Mueller’s probe. Whitaker was outspokenly critical of the special counsel’s inquiry before joining the administration, so Trump may now have a leader of the Justice Department who is more pliable on the Mueller front. But the president is unlikely to find an attorney general who will do as much to move his priorities forward as Sessions did—and the new attorney general will come into the job knowing that loyalty and efficacy aren’t enough to garner favor with Trump.

Bannon’s Out. But Did H.R. McMaster Win?

in mid-March, General McMaster tried to fire Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council. Mr. Cohen-Watnick, a holdover from Michael Flynn’s aborted stint as national security adviser, complained to Mr. Bannon and Jared Kushner, who prevailed on Mr. Trump to have him reinstated.

The idea that the 30-year-old Mr. Cohen-Watnick should be senior director for intelligence programs — a position held by senior career C.I.A. officers in the Obama administration and others — is dubious. Furthermore, General McMaster’s decision to get rid of Mr. Cohen-Watnick was well within his pay grade.

.. A few days after his reinstatement, Mr. Cohen-Watnick was one of three White House staffers who facilitated a briefing to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes on the “incidental surveillance” of Trump campaign staff members, which Mr. Nunes used to distract news media and public attention from the committee’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the outcome of the presidential election.

A little unpacking revealed how artlessly pretextual this distraction was: Mr. Nunes professed the need to learn new information about surveillance to warn the president, yet that very information was in the possession of the White House and accessible to Mr. Trump without Mr. Nunes’s intervention.

.. One defensible inference is that Mr. Trump wanted to keep a pliable ally as the White House’s principal liaison with the intelligence community.

To arrange Mr. Trump’s reversal of General McMaster’s dismissal of Mr. Cohen-Watnick, Mr. Bannon required no formal position on the National Security Council. Indeed, Mr. Cohen-Watnick’s other inside patron — Mr. Kushner — had no such position.

.. Rex W. Tillerson blithely channeled buzz phrases like “win-win solutions” and “mutual respect” in describing United States-China relations. The phraseology seemed to signal United States capitulation to China’s sphere-of-influence geopolitical stance

.. Matt Pottinger, the senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, had warned in a memo against using such language. The fact that no one seems to have paid him any heed suggests how little the council matters in the Trump White House.

.. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, implied it would be “silly” to advocate regime change due to the absence of practical alternatives. The next day, Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, in an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, struck a very different chord by condemning the regime and saying that the United States could take unilateral action should the Security Council fail to respond effectively. (Mr. Trump then dialed up his own language, saying his attitude toward Syria had “changed very much.”)

In each case, the stated position of one national security player did not mesh with that of another.

Among the National Security Council’s key tasks is to help the president arrive at a consensus on a given foreign policy issue by soliciting the views of different agencies and orchestrating compromises in formulating a clear and integrated approach.

.. And perhaps a lack of policy coordination is just the way it is in the Trump administration. But if that is the case, the situation calls into question the National Security Council’s very utility.

..

But for the institution to have real value, regardless of who the players are, Mr. Trump himself needs to respect it more than he apparently does.