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.

Trump firing Jeff Sessions looks more likely than ever. Here’s the storm that awaits.

The first is whether Trump can even pick an acting AG. As you may recall from David Shulkin’s exit as veterans affairs secretary, there is an open question as to whether the Federal Vacancies Reform Act allows a president to temporarily replace a Cabinet official he has fired — as opposed to one who has resigned. If Sessions forces Trump to fire him, there could be a legal battle over Trump’s authority to pick a temporary replacement who would outrank Rosenstein. Otherwise, Rosenstein would effectively take over. So there’s no guarantee of success for Trump there.

If Trump was able to pick a temporary replacement, it couldn’t be just anybody; it would have to be someone who has already been confirmed by the Senate or (less likely) a Justice Department employee with a high enough rank. The former would seem to afford more of a chance of inserting a loyalist.

.. “Whomever Trump appoints as a so-called acting AG in the short term will probably have greater practical significance than whom he nominates for Senate confirmation,” Lederman said.

That’s in part because it would be the person who could take over immediately, and in part because it would be someone who wouldn’t be subject to political maneuvering. The full-time replacement, after all, needs to be confirmed.

.. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), for instance, has said, “I find it really difficult to envision any circumstance where I would vote to confirm a successor to Jeff Sessions if he is fired because he is executing his job rather than choosing to act like a partisan hack.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said she doesn’t think a new AG will even be confirmed if Trump fires Sessions.

.. Another interesting subplot is whether the new attorney general or acting attorney general might also insert themselves in the Cohen probe, in which the former Trump attorney has just implicated the president in campaign-finance violations over hush-money payments. But SDNY has historically been very independent of the main Justice Department, and that would lead an internal clash, according to experts.

.. Ultimately, as with so many other things, this boils down to how much Republicans are willing to put up with from Trump — and whether they feel they can stop him. Also, as with so many other things, it will probably take only one or two of them to actually stand in his way.

.. Most times, they haven’t been prepared to actually fight him, or they’ve fought him only partially, succumbing to the politics of the day in the GOP. This situation could be different for a whole host of reasons, but as Graham demonstrated, we also haven’t seen anyone draw a true line in the sand and stick to it yet.

Congress, Do Your Job

After President Trump’s Terrible Tuesday, Republican lawmakers need to stop pretending that there are any red lines that he won’t cross.

Congressional Republicans have been operating under a see-no-evil policy with President Trump: ignoring his lying, his subversions of democratic norms and his attacks on government institutions or, when that’s not possible, dismissing such outrages as empty bluster — as Trump being Trump.

..Also on Tuesday, a federal jury convicted Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, of bank and tax fraud. How did Mr. Trump react? More like a Mafia don than a guardian of the rule of law. While criticizing Mr. Cohen on Wednesday, the president tweeted that, by contrast, he had “such respect for a brave man” like Mr. Manafort, who “refused to ‘break’ … to get a ‘deal.’ ” The president, in other words, felt moved to praise a convicted felon for refusing to cooperate in the pursuit of justice.

.. And how did Republicans in Congress react? They didn’t, if they could avoid it. John Cornyn, the majority whip in the Senate, shrugged that he had “no idea about what the facts” of Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea were “other than the fact that none of it has anything to do with the Russia investigation.” The office of the House speaker, Paul Ryan, said it needed “more information.” Most members opted for silence.

.. When members of Mr. Trump’s party pooh-pooh his thuggish rantings and otherwise signal that they will overlook even his most dangerous behavior, they are inviting him to act out even more. Like a willful toddler, Mr. Trump lives to test limits.

.. Republican lawmakers need not attack Mr. Trump in order to stop enabling his worst impulses and begin distancing themselves from his corruption. They simply need to stop cowering. An obvious first step is for Congress to pass legislation protecting Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry

..  The president has toyed with the idea of firing Mr. Mueller and his superior, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, moves that would ignite a constitutional crisis. Lawmakers are deluding themselves to think that he won’t consider such radical acts again as his predicament grows more dire.

.. Much of the groundwork for a bill to protect the Russia investigation has already been laid, with a bipartisan plan having passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. Shamefully, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, has refused to bring the bill up for a vote

.. insisting that it is unnecessary because of course the president would never fire Mr. Mueller.

.. Mr. Ryan has spouted similar assurances. Then again, Mr. Ryan also laughed off the idea that Mr. Trump would strip his political critics of their security clearances, so clearly Republican leaders are not the best barometers of this president’s thinking.

.. Speaking of Mr. Ryan, the speaker needs to shut down the attacks on Mr. Rosenstein by Mr. Trump’s lackeys in the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus.

.. Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan threatened to force an impeachment vote on Mr. Rosenstein, claiming that he was impeding Congress’s harassment — uh, “investigation” — of the Justice Department and the F.B.I. When that plan flopped, the men set their sights on holding Mr. Rosenstein in contempt of Congress — which doesn’t sound as dramatic, but would, if successful, provide Mr. Trump an excuse to oust Mr. Rosenstein and replace him with a lap dog.

.. Once upon a time, campaign finance violations made congressional Republicans very angry indeed. During Bill Clinton’s second term, there was quite an uproar over allegations that the Chinese government had attempted to influence the 1996 presidential race via illegal campaign contributions. (Does Vice President Al Gore’s visit to a certain Buddhist temple ring any bells?)

.. His efforts to hide the money trail suggest he knew his behavior wasn’t kosher. And while the initial payments to the women were made before Mr. Trump won the election, he didn’t begin compensating Mr. Cohen until February of 2017 — thus any conspiracy was carried straight into the Oval Office.

.. Every week seems to bring fresh evidence that Mr. Trump, his inner circle and his main backers do not consider themselves bound by such pedestrian concepts as truth, ethics or the law. The latest confirmation for that was the corruption indictment of Representative Duncan Hunter, Mr. Trump’s second campaign supporter in the House. The first, Representative Chris Collins, was indicted two weeks ago on insider-trading charges.

Congress, unfortunately, remains crouched and trembling in a dark corner, hoping this is all a bad dream. It’s not. Republican lawmakers need to buck up, remind themselves of their constitutional responsibilities and erect some basic guardrails to ensure that — in a fit of rage, panic or mere pique — this president does not wake up one morning and decide to drive American democracy off a cliff.

‘It’s Fantastic!’ Trump Warms to Rosenstein

Before President Trump headed to meet Vladimir Putin last month, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein requested a meeting in the Oval Office. He was ready to indict Russian officials for election hacking and wanted to know if the president wanted the Justice Department to announce the charges before or after the trip.

Mr. Trump told Mr. Rosenstein to issue the statement as soon as possible, adding that it would strengthen his position in talks with Moscow, according to people familiar with the exchange.

The moment was the latest indication of a significant change in the rapport between the two men.

.. Mr. Rosenstein has steadily developed a stable relationship with the president that suggests he has more staying power than either his supporters or detractors suspect.

.. The two men talk once or twice a week, and Mr. Trump calls Mr. Rosenstein on his cellphone to discuss such issues as immigration, according to one person familiar with the matter. Mr. Rosenstein consistently prepares the president’s team ahead of major news, officials said. And he visits the White House as often as three times a week, meeting with the president or White House chief of staff John Kelly. He also has a regular lunch with White House general counsel Don McGahn.

.. “It’s fantastic,” Mr. Trump said about his rapport with Mr. Rosenstein when a spokesman told him The Wall Street Journal was seeking a comment. “We have a great relationship. Make sure you tell them that.”

.. But the rapprochement may signal that, despite the president’s public statements, the investigation isn’t in immediate danger of being halted.

.. Senior White House officials privately praise Mr. Rosenstein’s handling of demands by congressional Republicans to share internal documents on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email server and any Trump campaign contacts with Russia. Some Trump allies—such as Reps. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R., Ohio)—accuse Mr. Rosenstein of stonewalling,  but White House officials say they view their effort to impeach Mr. Rosenstein as a sideshow.

Indeed, the president has recently come to rely on Mr. Rosenstein, the No. 2 at the Justice Department whom the White House increasingly views as the No. 1, given the president’s disenchantment with Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because he served on the Trump campaign.