Trump to Sessions: ‘You’re kind of fired! (Maybe.)’

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP, Matt Rourke/AP, AP [2])

I was itching to write this week about the ever-shrinking opposition party in Washington, which just unveiled its big new slogan, “A Better Deal” — expertly calibrated to appeal to the slice of 80-something Americans who still fondly recall the Roosevelt administration, about half of whom are Democrats in Congress.

But once again, hapless Democrats who deserve some scrutiny have been spared by the antics of the president, a relentless innovator who somehow manages to keep coming up with shocking new ways to compel our attention, even when you think the whole shtick can’t get any crazier. Which, by the way, is pretty much the definition of an entertainer.

In a twist none of us saw coming, President Trump has now declared war not on Iran or North Korea (that’s probably being held back for sweeps week), but rather on his own attorney general.

After ramping up his criticism of Jeff Sessions in the past week, going as far as to say he wouldn’t have appointed the former Alabama senator had he known that Sessions would recuse himself from the investigation into Trump’s Russian contacts, Trump took his case to Twitter, which is how you can always tell this president is serious about something.

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!” Trump tweeted. A word spelled out in all capital letters is how you know this president is really serious about something.

If you’re a Trump supporter, you should take all this seriously, too. Because the War on Sessions is telling you something about the kind of leader Trump really is.

And it should remind all of us, once again, that when it comes to Trump, you have to separate the reality from the reality show persona.

There’s a lot that’s confounding about Trump’s obsessive berating of Sessions. First, you have to stand back and consider the oddity of Trump’s specific grievance.

Generally, when presidents lose faith in a subordinate, and it happens in every administration, it’s because that person has compromised his integrity or the standing of the administration.

President Obama got rid of Stanley McChrystal, the top general in Afghanistan, after he publicly mocked the vice president. George W. Bush accepted the resignation of his friend Mike Brown, the FEMA director, not long after Hurricane Katrina became an all-out catastrophe in New Orleans.

In this case, Trump is disgusted with the nation’s chief law enforcement officer because he did precisely what any legal expert will tell you he had to do. Both Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani, former prosecutors who can be counted as staunch Trump supporters, have said that Sessions had no choice but to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

What Trump is saying here, quite baldly, is that his attorney general acted ethically instead of using his authority to spare the president a nettlesome investigation, and this constitutes an unforgivable act of treachery.

Inside voice, Mr. President. Inside voice.

Then there’s this issue of loyalty, which Trump seems to value so highly in everyone else.

Sessions was the first senator to embrace Trump when he joined the campaign just after the South Carolina primary, at a crucial moment. But his symbolic value to Trump ran deeper than that.

A culturally conservative lawman in the tradition of the old, segregationist South, Sessions embodied a powerful, nostalgic current in Southern Republican politics. When he stepped up to a podium in Alabama, just before Super Tuesday, and acknowledged that “we don’t get everything we want” in a candidate while embracing Trump, he sent a signal that religious Southerners could trust a coarse New York billionaire to hold the line against immigrants and liberal chauvinists.

Sessions took the “Make America Great Again” slogan that Trump slapped on a hat and gave it meaning in parts of the country where Trump could easily have seen the nomination slip away.

Later, when a lot of Trump’s allies distanced themselves from the man overheard deriding women on a hot mic, there was Sessions on the Sunday shows and in the debate spin rooms, uncompromisingly vouching for the candidate’s inner morality.

Now here’s Trump talking to the Wall Street Journal this week: “When they say he endorsed me, I went to Alabama. I had 40,000 people. … He looks at 40,000 people and he probably says, ‘What do I have to lose?’ And he endorsed me. So it’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement.”

Oh. So I guess it’s like that.

Let me translate this for anyone in the White House or Congress who’s still willing to sacrifice his own integrity for the promise of this president’s gratitude, or maybe for a pardon: You can tattoo “MAGA” on your forehead, but unless your last name is Trump, you’re always going to be as disposable as an acne pad. (And that probably goes for you too, Jared.)

But here, to me, is the larger lesson of Trump’s public breach with Sessions. Once again, the guy who held himself out on TV as the world’s toughest and most successful CEO turns out to be, in real life, a surprisingly whiny and ineffectual manager.

I mean, Trump has now publicly charged that his own attorney general — the seventh public servant in the line of succession to the presidency — is weak, delinquent in his duties and damaging to the institution of the presidency. If that’s even partly true, the American legal system is in grave peril.

So what does the blustery president do, this guy whose catchphrase, “You’re fired!,” catapulted him to national celebrity?

He complains. He tweets. He talks smack and waits for someone else to act, like a high school kid too scared to break up with his girlfriend.

A friend of mine once related to me some very sage advice he’d gotten in business, which was that whenever an employee fails in his job, there are two people who have to take a hard look at themselves in the mirror: the employee who can’t hack it, and the executive who put him in a position to fail.

Mr. President, you chose this AG. He reports only to you. If he’s so terrible for the country, then man up and find the stones to fire him.

That’s what TV Donald Trump would have done. But this Trump we have now — the one with a real job in the real world — seems paralyzed by insecurity. He wants other people to make the tough calls.

Sessions can’t stay in his job for long — that seems clear enough. Trump wants an AG who will move to shut down the independent counsel, and somewhere out there is a legal scholar craven enough to do it. (Look up “Bork, Robert” in your history book.)

It’s only a question now of whether Sessions can stomach the abuse long enough to get himself pushed aside, or whether he’ll do Trump’s bidding one last time and ultimately stand down.

Either way, Sessions must understand now that the tough-talking CEO he endorsed bears little resemblance to the president he serves.

Mr. “You’re Fired” has become Mr. “You First.”

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