Recent tweets and speeches he’s given have the President throwing Jeff Sessions under the bus – the reasons given for his unhappiness are fairly nebulous. It is reported that he is looking for ways to get a new Attorney General, but this may alienate the wrong people – people Trump not only needs to be a successful president, but continue to be president at all if things get ugly enough for him.
Let’s be clear here – Trump wants Sessions gone because, due to Sessions’ recusal, Sessions cannot fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the Trump campaign and its ties to Russia. If Trump was truly unhappy with the recusal itself, or with Sessions’ unwillingness to investigate Hillary Clinton, he would have voiced this months ago.
There are a number of different ways he could do this. He could outright fire Sessions, Sessions could resign under pressure, or he could move Sessions to a new department. The first two would anger the conservative base and likely cross a red line for the GOP, who almost unanimously respect Sessions as a principled conservative. The third option, while it would anger the GOP less than the others, would still create problems for Trump.
This is coming up now because Trump wants to end the Russia investigation, and he can’t. Sessions recused himself from the investigation, as he said he would in his testimony to the Senate. The next person in charge of the special counsel is the Deputy AG, Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller in the first place and would refuse to fire him. Therefore Trump has his hands tied – his only option for firing Mueller would be appointing a new Attorney General.
But this is also a ridiculous idea. Since the Attorney General is a position that would need Senate approval, the Senate would demand absolute independence of any new nominee from the Russia investigation as a condition of confirmation. GOP Senators have already drawn a line in the sand with this. This is especially true since Trump is now distancing his administration from the GOP, maybe even “declaring war” on the Republican Congress, who are increasingly seeing no reason to do Trump’s bidding. It is also reminiscent of Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” where he fired acting Attorneys General down the line until somebody agreed to fire the special counsel. It was later used to justify his impeachment on grounds of obstruction of justice. The world would also see it as an admission of guilt – why burn through all the political capital you don’t have to end an investigation if you are innocent?
The Senate, while they might not move to impeach Trump due to GOP control, might instead use this action to justify hiring their own special prosecutor if Trump finds a way to fire Mueller – possibly hiring Mueller right back.
So what’s the deal? Why go through all this?
A large part of Trump’s appeal was that he was the master negotiator – he “alone” can do what no other politician can do. And a large part of the criticism of Trump was that he has no government experience. Wouldn’t a master negotiator see the bind he has already created for himself, the fact that he has already burned what little political capital he has, and leave well enough alone? Or is there some fundamental misunderstanding here – one that explains all of Trump’s actions so far in his short presidency?
I believe Trump thinks of himself as the boss of the American government. I believe that, lacking even a rudimentary understanding of civics, this is how Trump makes sense of our very complicated federal government. He thinks he is the boss – that the Attorney General is his own personal attorney, that the Justice Department is his personal police force, that the Joint Chiefs are his personal generals, and probably even that the president is the “boss” of Congress. This is why, when any of these individuals act with any sense of independence, he is angered. This is also why Trump thought Obama was weak and ineffective – he didn’t understand that the president doesn’t just tell others in the government what to do.
The man literally doesn’t understand that the president has to work to build political capital by working with others on an equal footing, finding compromises and joint solutions. He thinks the reason we have problems in America aren’t because solutions are complicated, but because other presidents weren’t bossy enough. He thinks, by acting with independence, others in government are “disobeying” him.
This is also why Trump will get weaker and less effective as time goes on. Those people will get thrown under the bus, fired, replaced by people actually willing to take the job, and he will have the same problem all over again. Or in the case of Congress, he will alienate them while simultaneously empowering them to stand up to him as only Congress can.
This time, with Jeff Sessions, Trump will step on a landmine if he tries to replace him with an AG willing to fire Mueller. It will set off a chain reaction that will end with, at the absolute least, a lame duck administration. The founders of our Constitution designed our government this way for a reason – to stop a president exactly like Trump from getting away with crimes and abuses of power. And it’s these same abuses of power that Trump sees as the actual role of the President, confusing checks on the power of the Executive Branch as weakness among his staff and cabinet. Fortunately for us, the Constitution provides guidance on handling such abuses, and Trump will be in for a rude awakening if he doesn’t come to terms to this fact quickly.