I fear the relationship between President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions is at a breaking point. As we process the president’s latest Twitter blast toward his attorney general, it is worth remembering exactly how we got here.
First, Sessions had no choice but to recuse himself from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. The regulations are clear: Title 28, Chapter I, Section 45.2 of the Code of Federal Regulations states that no employee of the Justice Department may involve himself in an investigation if he has a political relationship — meaning “a close identification with an elected official, a candidate (whether or not successful) for elective, public office, a political party, or a campaign organization, arising from service as a principal adviser thereto or a principal official thereof” — with anyone who may be the subject of or be directly affected by the outcome of an investigation. So, there you have it. Recusing himself was not something Sessions pulled out of thin air or even did out of an abundance of caution. He was compelled to do so. Period.
Next, Sessions’ recusal didn’t exactly leave an enemy army in charge. Sessions didn’t throw the babe Trump to the wolves. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was viewed as a model of effectiveness, probity and professionalism before joining Trump’s team. If you are innocent, you want Rosenstein to be in charge of your investigation. It will be fair and by the book.
Finally, a special counsel was probably unavoidable. There were legitimate questions at the time. The facts that have emerged regarding the validity of those questions and the role played in spawning the investigation by Clinton partisans and the Obama State Department and other parts of his administration should be part of Mueller’s investigation, but it doesn’t appear that Mueller’s team (predominantly made up of Democrats) will take it there. This undoubtedly fuels the president’s anger, but there are no good options for ending what has already begun. The probe must run its course.
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But can Sessions stay in office while Trump so publicly obsesses about his role as attorney general? Of course he can. The question is whether the attorney general can function effectively while he is greeted almost daily with the political equivalent of an air-horn blast reminding him of the president’s dissatisfaction. Can the attorney general plan important strategy and implement vital programs while the president constantly undermines him by reminding everyone that he would prefer Sessions were not in the job?
Few would blame Sessions if he gave the president what he wants — specifically, a vacancy at the top of the Justice Department. But the president should be careful what he wishes for. The president and those around him would be wise to think two or three moves ahead. If Sessions were to vacate his post, there is no guarantee Rosenstein would stay. The president may think that’s just fine, but removing Sessions and Rosenstein would potentially unravel the Justice Department and fuel open warfare among its professionals, the FBI and the rest of the administration.
Sessions and Rosenstein remain very popular with rank-and-file justice and FBI personnel. There is a sense that only Sessions and his team are protecting them from a capricious and malicious president. Nobody knows what the consequences would be, but if Sessions were to go, it would cause a fundamental breakdown that would have long-term consequences. There is almost no chance that a Cabinet without Sessions would bring Trump the peace or the control that he wants.
Sessions will not be part of a game in which Trump rants and whines while the effectiveness and trust of America’s Justice Department erodes. Rather than silently play along, Sessions will be hypersensitive to any harm being done to the department, and he will do what is in the department’s best interest.
Ed Rogers of lobbying firm BGR Group is a veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses.