It was a mild February in the great state of Alabama, and presidential candidate Donald Trump had a surprise announcement for an already electric crowd. Dressed in a sports coat and donning a red ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, the boisterous billionaire excitedly told his supporters about his first endorsement from a US Senator.
‘I have a little surprise for you,’ Trump teased, as if promoting a new reality TV show. ‘I have a man who is respected by everybody here, greatly respected…He’s really the expert as far as I’m concerned on borders, on so many things.’
And out strolled Jeff Sessions, the senior senator of Alabama.
For now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that February 28, 2016 campaign event might must feel like a million years ago. Back then, he was Trump’s favourite senator — a man who had impeccable conservative credentials. Sessions was the center of gravity for a loud and fervent universe of anti-immigration and law-and-order Republicans who were traditionally branded by more moderate or liberal Americans as uber-nationalists or right-wing zealots. He was the kind of man who would help Trump consolidate support from the conservative base, the faction that determine whether a GOP candidate for president won the party’s nomination or sputtered into irrelevancy.
Sessions has never stopped being the immigration restrictionist and anti-marijuana extremist he was known as during his 20-year Senate career. But that hasn’t prevented President Trump from humiliating him in public. Trump’s meandering interview with Fox News this week, in which he castigated his Attorney General as a weak, ineffectual, and disloyal trickster who can’t control his own Justice Department, was just the latest blow to the stomach in what has been a loveless personal relationship between the two men. It wasn’t the first insult Trump threw at Sessions, and it probably won’t be the last.
Of course, the dispute ripping Trump and Sessions apart is the Russia investigation. Trump is still solidly of the opinion that Sessions should have acted as his personal protector by keeping himself in control of the inquiry and walling off the White House from the FBI as agents searched for evidence about collision between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. In the President’s mind, Sessions should have imitated Roy Cohn, the lawyer who represented disgraced Senator Joseph McCarthy before advising Trump in the New York City real estate market. Cohn was a notoriously dirty and ruthless player whose interpretation of compromise and dialogue was to aim for the face instead of the midriff.
What Trump neither knew or cared about is that the Justice Department is not at all like the skeevy New York legal world of old. At Justice, there are rules and regulations; one of those rules is known in legal parlance as 28 CFR 45.2, where a person is expected to recuse him or herself from an investigation if there is a conflict of interest or even a perception of one. Because Sessions was a formal adviser in the Trump campaign, he undeniably had a conflict. The Alabaman’s decision to step away from all matters pertaining to the Russia investigation (he only did so under public pressure) was the proper thing for him to do.
The Orange Volcano naturally doesn’t see the recusal in the same way. The way Trump saw it, the very least Jeff Sessions could do to show his gratitude for getting the job of America’s top law enforcement official was to shield the boss from legal exposure. That thought has been percolating in Trump’s mind 17 months later.
The irony of this story is that Jeff Sessions has been one of the more productive members of Trump’s cabinet. He has enforced the administration’s hardline immigration policies with all the vigour of a true believer. He has stood up for Donald Trump’s nativism by portraying it as the harsh but necessary message the American people need to hear. As Attorney General, Sessions seems proud to be the enforcer of Trump’s law enforcement agenda.
Unfortunately, one perceived error can estrange you from Trumpworld. Jeff Sessions could be the most effective Attorney General in US history, and all of the accomplishments would be a blip on Trump’s radar. The rest of the radar is occupied by the high crime of recusal.