“I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad.”
That’s what President Trump told the Hill in a newly published interview. Which is strange, because my sources tell me Jeff Sessions arrives to work at the Justice Department in the morning, then spends his day doing things such as cracking down on immigration and overseeing a sprawling bureaucracy — all from an office that has the words “Attorney General” on the door. But the key words here are obviously “I” and “have.”
The United States has an attorney general. Whatever you think of his priorities and performance, the position is not vacant. But Trump does not personally have an attorney general because, as far as he’s concerned, having an attorney general means the person occupying that post will work to protect him from any legal jeopardy.
The interview offers some clues to Trump’s increasing frustration with a justice system that has refused to turn itself into a instrument of his will and his whims. Trump is, so far, in a kind of one-sided cold war with that system — lots of blustery rhetoric, occasional forays into direct but limited assault, but largely avoiding full-on warfare.
But if Democrats take back the House after November’s midterm elections and begin making his life much more difficult on the matter of Russia, there is a good chance he’ll go nuclear on the Justice Department.
While Trump didn’t express any entirely new ideas in this latest interview, he did provide an interesting window into his current thinking. He repeated his claims that the Russia investigation started with a FISA warrant to surveil former campaign aide Carter Page (false), and that the FBI was spying on his campaign (also false), and said this:
“If I did one mistake with [then-FBI director James B.] Comey, I should have fired him before I got here. I should have fired him the day I won the primaries,” Trump said. “I should have fired him right after the convention, say I don’t want that guy. Or at least fired him the first day on the job. . . . I would have been better off firing him or putting out a statement that I don’t want him there when I get there.”
In addition to the delusion that a presidential candidate is able to fire the FBI director, Trump also offers up the positively bonkers assertion that the entire world shares his belief that the job of the attorney general is to act as the president’s legal bodyguard and, therefore, Sessions — who was a high-ranking official in the Trump campaign and had his own contacts with Russian officials during that campaign — should not have recused himself from an investigation into Russian influence in that election:
“And my worst enemies, I mean, people that, you know, are on the other side of me, in a lot of ways including politically, have said that was a very unfair thing he did [recusing himself].”
For the record, there is no one outside of Trump and his most worshipful Fox News hype men who thinks it was “unfair” that Sessions recused himself. But this provides an insight into Trump’s thinking. He is constantly concerned with the concept of fairness, which he tends to define as whatever is good for Trump. He regularly complains that he or people he likes are being treated unfairly, usually when they’re held accountable for some kind of misdeed.
We should note that if Trump even bothered to pretend the Russia investigation should be conducted with professionalism and objectivity, he would agree that it doesn’t matter whether it’s being overseen by the attorney general, the deputy attorney general or any other official. The only reason why it would be “unfair” for Sessions to follow Justice Department guidance and recuse himself from the Russia investigation is that it means he can’t protect Trump.
All this is familiar, but it offers a reminder that, for Trump, all this — the Russia investigation, the identity of the people who are in senior leadership at the Justice Department — is intensely personal. When he’s feeling wronged or put-upon, he lashes out. Which is why, after November, his cold war with the Justice Department could turn hot.
If the Democrats take control of the House after the midterm elections, they will immediately move to provide the oversight of the administration that has been absent over the last 20 or so months, which means a raft of investigations and a mountain of subpoenas. That will certainly include investigations of the Russia scandal (and when Republicans claim they’re making too big a deal out of an unprecedented attack on the American electoral system by a hostile foreign power, we might remember that Republicans launched seven separate investigations of Benghazi).
These investigations will involve demands for documents, administration and campaign officials being called to testify, televised hearings, and a drumbeat of negative news that no amount of tweets shouting “No collusion!” will make disappear. Trump will inevitably become enraged.
We know that, more than almost any other president who came before him, Trump chafes at the restraints of the job — a Congress that won’t do what he wants, media that criticize him instead of celebrating his limitless greatness, courts that tell him what he can and can’t do, and pesky laws that limit his ability to see his every impulse carried out. If he finds himself “unfairly” besieged by congressional Democrats who suddenly have actual power, how is he likely to react? Probably by using what power he does have to strike back.
That will, in all likelihood, mean lashing out at a Justice Department that he feels has unfairly failed to protect him. Which would mean not just saying “I don’t have an attorney general,” but firing the one he does have and replacing him with one who knows where his primary loyalty is supposed to lie. He’ll probably fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, too. Then that new attorney general can do the “fair” thing, fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and shut this whole “witch hunt” down. And for good measure, maybe initiate a purge of the whole department, rooting out and jettisoning anyone whose loyalty to Trump is in question.
Trump already believes there is a conspiracy in the Justice Department to undermine him — what he calls “a cancer in our country” — and has been doing things such as ordering the disclosure of documents he think will prove embarrassing to the department. Next year, he may find ways to go after them that we haven’t even thought of yet. He’ll be scared and angry and desperate, so there’s no telling what he might do.