I wish Jeff Sessions held more libertarian views on things like the so-called War on Drugs and asset forfeiture. But if Americans wanted a more libertarian attorney general, then they should have elected Rand Paul or Ted Cruz.
They elected Donald Trump, Donald Trump is entitled to appoint an attorney general who broadly shares his policy views, and Jeff Sessions is probably the best the Trump administration is going to do: He is smart, competent, and principled — and so, naturally, the Trump administration wants him gone.
Trump does not take advice very well. But Senator Mitch McConnell, who rarely indulges lost causes, has nonetheless tried to advise the president that Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation — the proximate cause of Trump’s displeasure with him — was proper and ethically necessary. Even Newt Gingrich, whose rapid descent into sycophancy has been terrible to behold, has tried to advise the president that firing the attorney general over his compliance with a fairly straightforward ethical standard would be an error.
President Trump, as usual, does not quite understand what is going on around him. He thinks that the attorney general is his lawyer. But the attorney general, like the other members of the cabinet, does not work for the president. He serves at the president’s pleasure — he works for the American people, as does the president himself. His job is not to serve the president politically or personally, for instance by violating ordinary ethical standards in order to keep his hand in a potentially embarrassing federal investigation. The conflation of the national interest and the national business with the president’s interest and the president’s business is one of the unhappy byproducts of our new cult of the imperial presidency, which did not originate with Trump and his movement but which certainly has grown worse with the ascent of Trumpism.
Good luck with that.
Beyond that, Trump needs a few intelligent and reasonably prudent men around him to save him from his own worst tendencies. If it is the case that Trump has in mind a Richard Nixon–style Saturday Night Massacre — which is to say, if he intends to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and/or special investigator Robert Mueller, a possibility broached by Corey Lewandowski, among others — Sessions needs to remain in place as a firewall between the president and that potentially disastrous course of action. If the case against Sessions is that he has been insufficiently attentive to the political needs of the president, then we can assume that his replacement would be a more deferential man.
We also ought to keep in mind the not inconsequential fact that on the question of his recusal, Sessions is in the right. There is a Justice Department investigation into the Trump campaign; Jeff Sessions served on the Trump campaign; Jeff Sessions cannot be directly involved in the investigation into a political campaign of which he was an active part. This is an ethical necessity, and one that is not to be set aside at the whim of the president or in service to the president’s political needs. For Sessions to voluntarily step aside for having done the right thing would muddy those waters to the detriment of his reputation and, more important, to the detriment of our national standard for ethical conduct in government, or whatever remains of it.
The Obama administration’s naked politicization of everything from the IRS to the EPA to the DOJ did enormous damage to the credibility of our governmental institutions. Reestablishing that credibility will prove a long and difficult task, and the first step of that thousand-mile journey is: Stop making things worse. That means affirming that the Justice Department and its executive are instruments of American government, not instruments of presidential convenience.
If the Trump presidency is to be saved from total disaster — and I am not confident it can be — it will be saved by the fact that President Trump has in the main managed to surround himself with very good people: Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, Rick Perry, Kevin Hassett, Tom Price. It will fall upon these people to tell the president what he needs to hear, even — especially — when he is not inclined to hear it. Jeff Sessions is probably the best the Trump administration is going to do as attorney general, and for him to allow himself to be pressured into resigning for having done the right thing on the Russia investigation would be a public disservice unworthy of Sessions’s admirable career in office.
Jeff Sessions may not have known what exactly he was getting into when he accepted the job. But accept it he did, and it is his to do.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.