Trump Bullying of Sessions Could Backfire With Republican Senators

Jeff Sessions with Orrin Hatch, one of his old buddies from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine any previous president publicly abusing his attorney general the way Donald Trump has Jeff Sessions. It’s just part of a larger pattern that marks Trump, whatever else he is, as a bully. His irregularly scheduled nastygrams aimed at Sessions are even more noteworthy for the fact that he really does owe the man, who was for some time during the 2016 campaign his most prominent supporter in Congress.

But there’s one politically important community that is going to take the president’s attacks on Sessions much more personally: Sessions’s former colleagues in the Senate Republican conference. They are even beginning to complain publicly about it, as the Washington Examiner reports:

Republican senators believe President Trump should leave Attorney General Jeff Sessions alone and still have confidence in him despite the president’s constant barbs over Twitter …

“I just think you’re asking Jeff Sessions to do something he can’t do,” Graham said. “It’s unseemly and Jeff deserves better than that.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., says he still has confidence in his former Senate colleague, despite the public back-and-forth.

“I believe that he is a good resource. I think he’s done a good job over there,” Tillis said…. I have the utmost confidence in him.”

This is very likely just the tip of the iceberg of sentiment favoring Sessions in his one-sided feud with the Maximum Leader.

You have to appreciate that this is the Senate, and a former senator, we are talking about. Often called “the world’s most exclusive club,” or just the Club, the upper chamber of Congress has an outsized sense of its own dignified importance. And while partisanship (and perhaps diversity; the Senate’s no longer just the country’s most rarefied preserve for white men) has significantly eroded the courtly traditions of the Senate when it comes to relations across the party barricades, it’s still a big deal within each party, and particularly tradition-loving Republicans. A very good example of how partisan clubbiness and Senate traditions coincide occurred last year when Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Mitch McConnell for reading a letter from Coretta Scott King critical of Sessions that had been submitted to the Senate when his confirmation as a federal judge was defeated back in 1986. David Graham explained this at the time:

Warren read from the same letter from King on Tuesday, as well as another from the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who had called Sessions a “disgrace to the Justice Department,” when she was ruled to have breached decorum. McConnell charged that Warren had “impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama.” Put differently, the very words that helped to mortally wound Sessions’s nomination 30 years ago, when he was merely a United States attorney had become anathema when Sessions joined the Senate in 1997.

Membership has its privileges, and in Congress that means criticism of mere mortals becomes off-limits if and when they ascend to the Valhalla of the Senate. In retrospect, it’s unlikely that Jeff Sessions would have been confirmed as attorney general if he hadn’t first served in the Senate —presumably one of the reasons the White House took the risk of nominating this markedly controversial man to the job in the first place.

The same “club” dynamics that made Sessions confirmable last year could make him difficult or at least perilous to remove this year. For one thing, any potential successor will have to go through the Senate confirmation process, too. Unless there’s some other Republican senator in the wings for this job, any future nominee could have a tougher time.

And more generally, the administration needs the Senate’s cooperation on a wide range of issues, day in and day out. Yes, Trump’s the president, and he currently stands athwart a conquered Republican Party like a colossus. But the Senate GOP conference is already a more problematic and occasionally rebellious vassal than its House counterpart. Gratuitously insulting its puffed-up dignity by humiliating and then removing Jeff Sessions — or as Trump apparently calls him, Mr. Magoo — would be one of those acts of Trumpian hubris that could backfire down the road at the worst possible time.

Trump Bullying of Sessions Could Backfire With GOP Senators