A Cracking Foundation

The president’s attack on Attorney General Sessions could undermine his support, but it won’t end his presidency.
July 28, 2017 • Commentary
This article appeared on U.S. News & World Report (Online) on July 28, 2017.

Could President Donald Trump’s bizarre attack on Attorney General Jeff Sessions be the moment that the resistance was waiting for? Not the travel ban, not tweetstorms about media covfefe, not anything else that’s gone down in this six‐​month presidency (and forget anything from the campaign because that was already priced into the election). Is calling the AG “weak” and “beleaguered,” and otherwise expressing repeated frustration and disappointment with him, what we’ll point to as the moment when the Trump’s motley coalition began to fray?

Donald Trump could count on a solid floor of support for (or despite) pretty much anything in terms of policy initiatives, political strategery, and personal behavior — but not going after the first major politician who endorsed him, lending conservative credentials to his campaign? It’s not implausible that, between an erratic CEO and a chief law enforcement officer laser‐​trained on “bad hombres” — whether drug‐​dealers or foreigners, or both — the Make America Great Again supporters will side with the latter.

That’s not even mentioning the erstwhile Tea Partyers, conservatives and others who boarded the Trump Train simply because its conductor isn’t Hillary Clinton. Plus establishment Republicans; despite high‐​profile #NeverTrump defections, issues like judicial nominations continue allowing Trump to keep the GOP remarkably united. To many of these folks, Sessions is “one of us” while Trump is just an empty vessel suitable both for pursuing certain political goals and thumbing one’s nose at the cloying progressive elite.

Now, I’m not exactly Jeff Sessions’s biggest fan. He’s an honorable man — unfairly smeared by the left for being an Alabamian with a genteel drawl and the middle name Beauregard — but his views on issues ranging from the drug war to immigration are harmful to the nation’s best interests as I see them. Democrats really should’ve focused on civil asset forfeiture during his confirmation process instead of assorted racism canards.

So I’m not taking Sessions’ side in his spat with Trump because he’s standing up for sound public policy; I’m just saying that impugning the competence and integrity of a solidly conservative attorney general could be a bridge too far.

But probably not. It’s more likely that the caravan will move on and pundits will focus on the latest celebrity the president denigrates or next “international incident” he creates by not shaking someone’s hand — or shaking it too long. Lately, the master of misdirection has gotten everyone riled up about the issue of transgender rights in the military even as his administrative agencies are toiling away at deregulation (good!). There’s also health care and tax policy (which is what Trump should be using his tweety pulpit for).

No, Trump is more likely than not to survive this, possibly after the sort of closed‐​door meetings where these kinds of high‐​level differences are normally hashed out. That’s perhaps the most inexplicable aspect of this whole imbroglio: if you don’t like what your cabinet‐​level subordinate is doing, going public with your dissatisfaction is counterproductive unless you’re about to fire him — in which case it’s merely pointless.

And it’s not like the post‐​Hillary alternative is any better; is any Trump voter attracted by the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer or Elizabeth Warren? Such a gerontocratic leadership hasn’t been seen since the late Brezhnev years — which seems to be where the Democratic National Committee politburo is getting its economic ideas. They accuse Trump of running policies straight from the 1930s without realizing that their “Better Deal” borrows more from the Socialist Party platform of that time than FDR’s New Deal ever did.

More serious is the charge that a president’s public undermining of an attorney general delegitimizes government institutions and weakens the rule of law. This is a framing several reporters offered me this week, but it’s far too early for that. The Justice Department is far more resilient than any of these personalities. If Sessions and deputy AG Rod Rosenstein — who helped orchestrate FBI Director James Comey’s departure — get too covered in mud, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand is more than capable of righting the ship.

In short, Donald Trump’s presidency will end long before our system of government can suffer any real damage. Along the same lines, the shaking of his support over the Sessions affair — the cracks in his base, if you will — is real, but it’ll take a whole lot more to get his approval rating to the point where Republican defections prevent governance altogether or open the door to the political remedy of impeachment.

About the Author
Ilya Shapiro

Director, Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies, Cato Institute