Donald Trump has spent much of the past week publicly humiliating the most effective member of his cabinet — a man who was one of his campaign’s earliest supporters and is, to this day, a hero to his base.
He has done this on the (publicly stated) grounds that the attorney general’s first obligation is to insulate the president from federal investigation, and that Jeff Sessions betrayed that solemn responsibility when he recused himself from the investigation into Trump’s campaign (in deference to the most basic ethical norms of the legal profession).
This behavior has earned Trump the disapproval of the mainstream press (which objects to his contempt for the rule of law), but also the opprobrium of right-wing outlets and his most stalwart congressional allies (who want Trump to let Sessions focus on what really matters: denying civil-rights protections to gay people, terrorizing the undocumented, and giving police officers free reign to take the lives and property of the working poor, whenever they see fit).
Trump’s actions have also caused alarm among his lawyers, who are reportedly concerned that the president’s harassment of Sessions — and his public demand that special counsel Robert Mueller ignore his finances — might put Trump in legal jeopardy, ostensibly by opening the door to obstruction of justice charges.
But the president has told told his legal advisers not to worry — his attacks on the attorney general and special counsel won’t put him at any legal risk because there’s no underlying crime to obstruct. Which is to say: He isn’t sowing discord in his cabinet and threatening rule of law in the country out of rational fear, but merely mindless spite.
Or so this report from the Washington Post suggests:
Several lawyers around Trump have been urging the president to stop his saber-rattling against Sessions and Mueller, according to three advisers. The president has countered that he believes the probe is a mere political attack — a “witch hunt” and “hoax,” as he often says on Twitter — and that he has no legal jeopardy to worry about.
But several lawyers have told Trump that his comments send a signal to Mueller that the president is trying to shut down or curtail the probe, as though he does have something to hide.
Trump has largely shrugged off these concerns. “In his mind, he is his own best advocate, his own best lawyer,” one adviser said. “He’s not willing to let the Mueller probe and other events unfold without taking action himself. ”
If this is accurate, then the president’s position is insane for at least three distinct reasons:
(1) You can be found guilty of obstruction of justice, even if you were innocent of the allegations that sparked the investigation you obstructed.
(2) At this point, Trump cannot claim that he has nothing to hide without confessing that he is helplessly self-destructive. This is not a man who brushes up on the U.S. president’s pardon powers out of sheer intellectual curiosity. If he truly believes that the Russia investigation is solely a crisis of bad optics, then he has done virtually everything in his power to make that crisis worse, ostensibly in reaction to fleeting paranoid delusions brought on by anxiety.
(3) If we make the (safe-seeming) assumption that Trump does have good reason to fear Mueller’s investigation, then he is lying to his lawyers. Which is to say, he is putting himself in legal jeopardy for the sake of keeping up (transparently false) appearances in private conversations with his attorneys.
As of this writing, Trump and Sessions seem poised to kiss, oppress some minorities, and make up. The president was reportedly mulling the idea of firing Sessions, then appointing a crony as attorney general over the congressional recess, thereby avoiding a nettlesome confirmation process. But Senate Democrats have already indicated they will block that path, by preventing the upper chamber from ever formally adjourning. And top Senate Republicans have indicated that if Sessions is fired there “will be holy hell to pay”— and no new attorney general nominee confirmed any time this year. Meanwhile, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham has announced that he will be introducing legislation that would bar the president from firing the special counsel absent judicial review.
Meanwhile, Sessions is, reportedly, preparing to work his way back into Trump’s good graces by cracking down on leakers within the administration.
But no matter how events proceed from here, Trump’s feud with his attorney general has once again confirmed that he is either guilty of serious crimes or incapable of anticipating the consequences of his own actions — or both.