Every time I start to sympathize with Sessions, I remember how important his endorsement of Trump was in the 2016 primary and end up wishing Trump would bite him harder. Like a real-life version of Trump’s favorite song.
If Sessions had stayed out of the primary he might never have been Attorney General. But he’d still be a senator from Alabama and a figure beloved by Republican nationalists instead of unemployed and a perpetual whipping boy for their new favorite politician. You knew damn well he was a snake before you took him in, Jeff. How much sympathy can we really have?
There are two things that make these comments newsworthy.
GORKA: Last two questions. How are we doing, Mr. President, in defeating the Deep State?
TRUMP: Well, I think, if it all works out, I will consider it one of the greatest things I’ve done. You look at what’s happened to the absolute scum at the top of the FBI. You look at what’s happening over at the Justice Department, now we have a great attorney general. Whereas before that, with Jeff Sessions, it was a disaster. Just a total disaster. He was an embarrassment to the great state of Alabama. And I put him there because he endorsed me, and he wanted it so badly. And I wish he’d never endorsed me.
I can think of at least one other person who wishes Sessions had never endorsed Trump. Anyway, that’s newsworthy in the first place because Sessions himself recently had occasion to comment publicly on Trump — and was characteristically gracious, ignoring the many months of Twitter tirades he endured as AG:
In a speech to Alabama Republicans at a fundraiser Tuesday night, the former longtime senator said despite nearly two years of being publicly berated by Trump, “I still do support him” and his policies.
Sessions said Trump continues “relentlessly and actually honoring the promises he made to the American people,” such as “boldly” asserting the principles of the Republican Party, despite being engulfed in scandal after scandal. Sessions praised Trump’s trade maneuvers with China and his foreign policy and immigration moves…
“There was one problem as attorney general, that’s for sure, as you well know,” he told the crowd. “I like to say a lot of people get fired from their work, but mine was a little more public than most. You do the best you can. At least they don’t shoot you when they fire you.”
Much has been written (including by me) about Trump’s transactional nature but his capacity to pursue a vendetta long after it’s stopped being useful to him is constantly amazing. The most notorious example is him wandering off-script at official events occasionally to remind the audience how much he disliked the now long-dead John McCain but his Sessions grudge is almost as weird. We get it — he resents the fact that Sessions did something ethical by recusing himself from the Russiagate probe instead of acting like a southern-fried Roy Cohn. He’s raged about it at length literally for years now. In the end Mueller didn’t charge him and didn’t even give Democrats enough to impeach him for obstruction, and Trump finally ended up replacing Sessions with a much more accommodating AG. You’d think he’d be ready to shift towards more conciliatory talking points about Sessions — “a good man, didn’t agree with his recusal decision, but I’ll always be grateful for that endorsement,” and so on. Nope.
Which brings us to the other reason this is newsworthy. Jeff Sessions has a lot of friends in Mitch McConnell’s caucus, having spent 20 years in the Senate before being named AG. No doubt many of those friends are unhappy with how Sessions was demagogued by Trump during the Russiagate process. There’s also no doubt that some will be annoyed to see Trump still flogging him, long after POTUS stopped getting any political mileage from it. Some might even draw a lesson in loyalty from it: Sessions, who stuck his neck out to become the only U.S. senator willing to formally support Trump in 2016, was rewarded in due time with endless abuse. His early, even singular loyalty earned him nothing from the president.
These are the people who’ll soon be rendering a verdict on impeachment.
You would think Trump would be willing to make a few small concessions to their sensitivities even knowing how unlikely it is that that they’d ever vote to remove him, but instead he seems willing to antagonize them repeatedly and gratuitously. There’s today’s pummeling of Sessions. There’s his decision to step aside in northern Syria and let Turkey mash the Kurds, a decision seen by nearly every Republican in Congress as a grievous betrayal. There were the antics last week on the White House lawn when he called publicly on Ukraine and China to investigate the Bidens, making it that much harder for Republicans to spin his phone call with Zelensky. It’s not just right-wingers on the Hill whom he’s feuding with either. He’s decided to escalate his attacks on Fox News, a key messenger in his impeachment media strategy:
…Court Justice & I turned him down (he’s been terrible ever since), Shep Smith, @donnabrazile (who gave Crooked Hillary the debate questions & got fired from @CNN), & others, @FoxNews doesn’t deliver for US anymore. It is so different than it used to be. Oh well, I’m President!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2019
He decided to make an enemy of John Bolton too by firing him just as the Ukraine matter was coming to a head behind closed doors, despite doubtless knowing of Bolton’s willingness to settle scores with his enemies via leaks to the media. News broke just this morning that Bolton is already writing a book about his experiences with Trump; whether he’s also been a source of the many damaging national-security scoops that have ended up in newspapers lately remains an open question.
Meanwhile, rising support for impeachment is making it that much easier for Senate Republicans who are weary of the daily circus to give removal a second look.
All of this feels like a domestic version of Trump’s trade-war policies. In each case he’s facing a formidable adversary, China on the one hand and House Democrats on the other. The logical thing to do strategically would be to make nice with allies, offering concessions as needed in hopes of assembling a united front against the enemy. Instead Trump lashes out indiscriminately at everyone, slapping tariffs on allies in the trade-war context and slapping Jeff Sessions across the face today in print knowing that Senate Republicans won’t like it. There’s no eight-dimensional chess here; there’s not even checkers. In both cases the “strategy” is simply brute-force intimidation, believing in the case of trade that allies will have no choice but to acquiesce to the demands of the American superpower and believing in the case of impeachment that Senate Republicans will have no choice but to acquiesce to the will of his voters, which is to protect Trump at all costs. A little bit of honey would make his life easier but it’s all vinegar:
In private, Trump is increasingly leaning on the Republican leader in the Senate. In a return to the President’s panicked behavior during the height of the Mueller investigation, Trump is calling McConnell as often as three times a day, according to a person familiar with the conversations…
Trump has been lashing out at GOP senators he sees as disloyal, according to the person familiar with the conversations, telling McConnell he will amplify attacks on those Republicans who criticize him.
Maybe tomorrow he’ll dump on Ronald Reagan during a press conference or call George W. Bush some names. See if he can alienate every last remaining Republican on the Hill who’s kinda sorta well disposed to him.
As long as he has people like this in conservative media willing to treat him like an actual king, he may figure that intimidation on the Hill is destined to work. The cultier the party becomes, the greater the risk to anyone who tries to leave the cult. Why make concessions to get your way if you can get it with threats instead?