Even after six months on the job, there are quite a few things that President Trump doesn’t seem to grasp about the United States’ political system, from the idea that his policies are subject to judicial review to how exactly the Republican health-care plan works. Trump’s interactions with James Comey, and the FBI director’s subsequent firing, made it abundantly clear that the independence of the Justice Department belongs somewhere near the top of that list.
While he now has a team of lawyers to break down matters related to the Russia probe, in an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday, Trump demonstrated that he still doesn’t comprehend some key facts about what got him here.
In a wide-ranging discussion with Peter Baker, Michael Schmidt, and Maggie Haberman, Trump complained that Attorney General Jeff Sessions “should have never recused himself” from the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, “and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.”
HABERMAN: He gave you no heads up at all, in any sense?
TRUMP: Zero. So Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have — which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, “Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.” It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president. So he recuses himself. I then end up with a second man, who’s a deputy.
While the Justice Department is part of the executive branch, as Politico explains, over the past few decades a series of directives issued by Justice Department officials were put in place to ensure that federal investigations are free from political interference. Trump can fire the FBI director, but he’s not supposed to ask for his personal loyalty — and he’s certainly not supposed to publicly suggest he fired the director because he doesn’t like the probe into his Russia ties.
Presumably, someone went over this point with Trump, as it’s raised the possibility that he’s guilty of obstruction of justice. Yet, in the Times interview, Trump suggests that he expected Sessions to manage the Russia probe for him when he made him attorney general.
Trump’s complaint that Sessions “should have told me [he’d recuse himself] before he took the job” doesn’t make sense, as the Washington Post points out. Sessions’s two-day Senate confirmation hearing largely focused on whether he’d be able to uphold the law in an impartial manner, despite his close relationship with Trump.
When asked if he’d recuse himself from an investigation involving the Trump campaign, Sessions replied: “I would review it and try to do the right thing as to whether or not it should stay within the jurisdiction of the attorney general or not.”
It’s a wordy answer, but Sessions made his point more clearly when asked if he’d recuse himself from an investigation into Hillary Clinton, since he’d criticized her during the campaign. He said the attorney general shouldn’t act “in any way that would suggest anything less than political objectivity.”
In addition to lashing out at Sessions on Wednesday, Trump went after nearly every other Justice Department official involved in the Russia probe. He complained that Sessions’s recusal put the Russia investigation under the jurisdiction of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who worked as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore. “There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any,” he complained. Trump seems to be implying that Rosenstein appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller because he’s a Democrat, but Rosenstein actually grew up in Pennsylvania and his political affiliation is unknown.
Trump also continued his unwise habit of making vague threats against those involved in the Russia probe, such as when he threatened to release tapes of his discussions with Comey (though they don’t exist). Trump told the Times that he interviewed Mueller to replace Comey just one day before he was appointed special counsel.
“He was up here, and he wanted the job,” Trump said. “I said, what the hell is this all about? Talk about conflicts? But he was interviewing for the job. There were many other conflicts that I haven’t said, but I will at some point.”
When asked if he thought Mueller probing his family’s finances beyond their ties to Russia would cross a red line, Trump responded, “I would say yes.” He didn’t say he’d have Mueller fired, but he added, “I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia.”
Trump’s confusion was not limited to the idea that Justice Department officials aren’t supposed to let their own politics — or the president — sway investigations. He tried to downplay the controversy over his après-dinner chat with Russian president Vladimir Putin by revealing that they only talked about adoptions:
TRUMP: … Really, pleasantries more than anything else. It was not a long conversation, but it was, you know, could be 15 minutes. Just talked about — things. Actually, it was very interesting, we talked about adoption … We talked about Russian adoption. Yeah. I always found that interesting. Because, you know, he ended that years ago. And I actually talked about Russian adoption with him, which is interesting because it was a part of the conversation that Don [Jr., Mr. Trump’s son] had in that meeting.
Putin ended the adoption of Russian children by Americans in response to the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 U.S. law that punished Russian officials for human rights abuses. So talking adoptions with Putin is actually talking sanctions with Putin.
It’s a bit odd for Trump to tie his talk with Putin to the uproar over his son’s emails, but it seems he’s unclear on the implications of Don Jr. eagerly taking a meeting related to Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. election. As Trump explained, he’s heard about the email exchange, but he hasn’t bothered to look at it very closely.
BAKER: Right, your point is that Democrats are trying to use this as an excuse, fine. But did that email concern you, that the Russian government was trying something to compromise——
TRUMP: You know, Peter, I didn’t look into it very closely, to be honest with you.
TRUMP: I just heard there was an email requesting a meeting or something — yeah, requesting a meeting. That they have information on Hillary Clinton, and I said — I mean, this was standard political stuff.
If Trump was going to recuse himself from taking any of his legal team’s advice, he should have told them before they took the job.