If Trump fires Sessions, will Senate Republicans grow spines?

Senate Republicans Love Jeff Sessions. If Trump Fires Him, Will They Finally Grow Spines?

Senate Republicans Love Jeff Sessions. If Trump Fires Him, Will They Finally Grow Spines?

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July 27 2017 1:53 PM

Heavy Into Jeff

Senate Republicans love their former colleague Jeff Sessions. If Trump fires the attorney general, will they finally grow spines?

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Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions speaks as other Republican senators listen during a news conference on Sept. 8, 2011, on Capitol Hill.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

It will be the final, triumphal irony of this deeply awful, deeply stupid administration if Donald Trump’s attacks on Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III are what finally bring him down.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

Trump has been going after his own attorney general for months now, dating back to the threats and taunts he directed toward the Justice Department for ostensibly failing to defend his original travel ban. But those attacks escalated significantly in an interview with the New York Times last week in which he complained bitterly about Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation and admitted he wouldn’t have given him the job had he known that was coming. On Monday, he called Sessions “beleaguered” in a tweet, then added on Tuesday that his attorney general was “VERY weak” for his failure to investigate both Hillary Clinton and “Intel leakers!” He then said in the Rose Garden that “time will tell” if he retains the AG and told the Wall Street Journal that Sessions endorsed him during the campaign only because Trump drew enviable crowds. Trump was at it again on Wednesday morning, tweeting his ire at Sessions for not replacing the acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe. Finally, NBC reports that Trump gave the attorney general the Spicer treatment by failing to bring him to the Boy Scouts Jamboree despite the fact that Sessions is an Eagle Scout.

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That brings us to Senate Republicans, who have, until now, supported every self-destructive, harmful act that’s emanated from the Oval Office. Will they finally grow spines now that Trump is threatening one of their own?

Republicans in the Senate have largely sided with Sessions in this round of the fight. Ohio’s Rob Portman issued a statement calling him “a friend, former colleague, and an honorable person,” and John Cornyn of Texas said he “made the right decision to recuse himself [and] I happen to agree with him that he did.” Orrin Hatch of Utah said that Sessions “is among the most honorable men in government today. … I have full confidence in Jeff’s ability to perform the duties of his office and, above all, uphold the rule of law.” South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham added that Sessions “understands that we are a nation of laws not men” and went so far as berating Trump for being too scared to fire the attorney general directly. “I would fire somebody I did not believe would serve me well rather than trying to humiliate them in public, which is a sign of weakness.” Graham went still further on Thursday, announcing there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump fired Sessions, adding, “This is not just a diversion. This is unnerving.”

What might all this fellow feeling mean for the president’s war on Sessions? At minimum, we’ve learned that Senate Republicans have tremendous empathy for their fellow Senate Republicans. Don’t forget that Sen. Elizabeth Warren made Senate history when she was rebuked in February for supposedly “impugning Sessions’ motives” by reading a letter from Coretta Scott King about her ex-colleague’s civil rights record.

All this chest-puffing could maybe possibly indicate a bigger movement is afoot. GOP senators might see firing Sessions as a kind of gateway drug, the first step to getting rid of Robert Mueller. That’s no longer just a staffing problem. It’s a step toward a genuine constitutional crisis. On Thursday morning, Sen. Graham announced plans to introduce bipartisan legislation to further insulate Mueller from being fired absent judicial review.

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If Sessions does get the ax, Senate Democrats will do whatever they can to preclude Trump from making a recess appointment, and their Republican colleagues now appear inclined to join them in that endeavor. Senate Republicans also seem disinclined to give Trump the opportunity to confirm a hack. But whether any of the big speeches and statements by Sessions’ former colleagues will amount to any action if Trump removes him remains to be seen. On Wednesday evening Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley tweeted that the committee would not make time to confirm a new AG this year.

At this point, all the support the Republicans are offering has far less to do with lofty ideas about the rule of law than with the realization that if the No. 1 sycophant isn’t safe, probably nobody else is either. Oddly, Trump finds himself caught in the Comey trap again. He surely has the power to fire Sessions, but doing so following a long, weird campaign of cyberbullying will only hurt him—and serve to boost the Russia investigation. He is pinioned between what he wants to do as a toddler and what he cannot do as a politician.

Sessions, for his part, has told White House chief of staff Reince Priebus that he will not step down, and he may have further enraged Trump by publicly saying as much. Proving that no quantum of loyalty will mollify a president for whom loyalty flows in one direction, it’s worth pointing out again that Sessions was not only the first senator to support candidate Trump, but he also supported him uncritically through Access Hollywood scandals and attacks on the nation’s intelligence community. It’s been Sessions who has smugly effectuated Trump’s dumbest and most hateful policies, from building the border wall to the Muslim travel ban to reinstating a failed war on drugs and instigating a pretextual crackdown on vote fraud. Sessions has also been a proud culture warrior against gay rights and women’s rights, and he out-Trumped even Trump when he attacked a federal judge in Hawaii as “a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific.” Indeed, there is no crass Trump sound bite that Sessions hasn’t spent decades toiling toward. The president should be building a shrine to his AG, not trashing him. If anything, Sessions is the living embodiment of the oppressed Christian white man, viciously scorched by Northern intellectual contempt, that Trump only pretends to be.

Of course, that’s not how it goes down inside the smallest strategic mind in political history. Instead we have a feud. On Wednesday morning, Politico reported that Trump and Sessions are, in classic Real Housewives manner, no longer speaking, which has “led to an unusual spectacle where the two men aren’t talking—but sending messages through their aides and waiting for a resolution to the fate of the country’s top law enforcement official.” Politico goes on to add that inside the Trump White House, “a heated battle has broken out over Sessions’ future” with supporters, led by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, trying to talk the president down.

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CNN reports that “Sessions supporters inside the West Wing are reminding Trump ‘every day, every hour’ of the work Sessions has done to advance” the causes the president holds dear. Trump is hearing the same message from the attorney general’s fans outside the administration. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for restrictions on legal and illegal immigration, told the Los Angeles Times that Trump needs Sessions more than Sessions needs Trump. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, tweeted his support for the AG, saying he has “restored” the Department of Justice’s reputation. Even Breitbart News has sided with Sessions, screaming: “Trump vs. Trump: POTUS endangers immigration agenda because Sessions followed his lead on Hillary crimes.”

So right now, we’re at an impasse, with the president allowing Sessions and the DOJ to twist in the wind, precisely—as the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman tweeted Tuesday—“Because he can.” Trump cannot withstand another confirmation battle. He doesn’t have the courage to fire Sessions himself. And Sessions is a living hero to the very same people who held their noses and voted for Trump so they could protect Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat.

And why does Sessions stay on? Well, that is the better question. If he is truly feeling “humiliated” by Trump’s broadside he has a funny way of showing it. A week of pitiless attacks on his integrity haven’t stopped him from boldly pledging to do exactly what Trump asked him to do and launch yet more criminal investigations of leakers. Sessions also spent time Tuesday going after sanctuary cities by threatening to withhold their Immigration and Customs Enforcement funding unless they cooperate with DOJ deportation priorities. On Wednesday, he launched an unnecessary assault on LGBTQ protections in the federal courts. This is the guy Democrats pray for at night.

Maybe he is just a masochist. Maybe he has no mental space left for humiliation. Maybe he is having too much fun living the revanchist legal dream. Or maybe he knows better than the rest of us that Trump is an adolescent bully and that if you just ignore him he will find another target soon enough. For months now, Rep. Maxine Waters has been saying that Graham and John McCain were the senators to watch, because wherever fissures emerged between their interests and Trump’s, you’d find the fault line for GOP support of Trumpism. That fissure is now starting to look a lot like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III—Trump’s earliest booster.

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