President Trump has been attempting for months to humiliate Attorney General Jeff Sessions into resigning. The main thing preventing Trump from doing so is the difficulty he would find obtaining Senate approval for a suitably hackish replacement.
But today Senator Lindsey Graham, who has cultivated a friendly and frequently sycophantic relationship with the president, endorsed Trump’s right to fire Sessions, as long as he waits until after the midterm elections. “The president’s entitled to an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that’s qualified for the job, and I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice,” he tells Steven Dennis.
Sessions is hardly a sympathetic figure. Indeed, he has ruthlessly and fairly effectively carried out the Trumpian revanchist agenda that drew him to Trump in the first place, at a time in the campaign when no other sitting Republican senator would endorse the front-runner. For Trump critics, though, Sessions has one singular virtue as attorney general: He has recused himself from the Russia investigation.
The recusal was not a remotely close call by normal ethical standards —Sessions can hardly oversee an investigation of a campaign he participated in — but normal standards are very different than Trump standards. Trump has made it abundantly clear he demands an attorney general who uses the law as a sword and shield for the president’s own political interests. He admitted in a recent interview he only picked Sessions because he showed personal loyalty. Graham’s criteria, an attorney general Trump “has faith in,” means one who refuses to uphold the rule of law of the Department of Justice tradition of nonpartisan prosecution.
If he fires Sessions, Trump will attempt to replace him with an attorney general who will run federal law enforcement the way Trump wants. That means shutting down the Mueller probe, and reopening investigations of Hillary Clinton and other Trump enemies.
Graham’s green light of such a move (albeit in a few months) is an important signal. That does not mean Trump would succeed. The makeup of the Senate would be crucial. As it stands, Republicans have only 51 members, and two defections can defeat anything. However, most of the seats up for election belong to Democrats, many in deep red states. What’s more, three of the most independent Republican senators on rule of law questions — John McCain, Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker — are departing the scene.
So even if the GOP merely holds onto its current 51 seats, the makeup of the Republican Senate caucus is likely to move in a Trumpier direction. And if Republicans maintain control of the House, roughly a 28 percent possibility, Trump will appear invincible, and the morale of his remaining intra-party critics would collapse.
Right now, Sessions is safe, and so is Mueller. The midterm elections will have a lot to say about whether that remains true.