Politics & Policy

Losing Jeff Sessions Means Losing Immigration Reform with Him

(Reuters photo: James Lawler Duggan)
Firing the attorney general would be a death blow to the restrictionist cause.

Does Donald Trump realize how close he is to fatally undermining the core policy on which he campaigned?

It really looks as though President Trump is trying to bait his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, into resigning. Sandwiched between two interviews with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in which he criticized Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, the president tweeted his displeasure at Sessions for following Trump’s own stated post-election policy of leaving Hillary Clinton alone. It was Trump, after all, who first reneged on his demagogic threat to “lock her up,” with Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway instead saying he wanted to “help her heal.”

What really seems to be at work is that Trump wants Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation contained or stopped altogether, and he is angry that Sessions took himself off the field. Trump is daring Sessions to resign so that he won’t have to take the responsibility for firing him.

If the president continues to stay angry about this, he will likely fire Sessions and then appoint someone who will restrain or fire Mueller. Major media outlets, which know how to play on Trump’s insecurities, will, in their plausibly deniable way, begin to dare him to do it, hoping this brings about the ultimate crisis of his administration, or at least heap more guilt on the Republican party for its complicity in his presidency.

Trump’s treatment of Sessions is already dissuading prominent congressional Republicans from tying themselves more closely to the administration. If this is the reward Sessions gets for his loyalty — he gave Trump his earliest Senate endorsement and worked closely with him on his signature campaign issue — then why on earth would Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell stick their necks out for the president?

Even if Trump does fire Sessions, I doubt that Republicans are yet willing to hasten the end of this presidency. Regardless, losing Sessions would politically hobble Trump in a serious way going forward. The administration has so far failed to learn from the congressional health-care debate that it’s the White House that needs to lead on legislative efforts, not only to whip a working coalition together, but also to select for popular reforms. The Senate is pushing forward on its promise to repeal Obamacare even though the various bills they have put together are about as popular as poison.

Losing Sessions would politically hobble Trump in a serious way going forward.

On the long-overdue issue of immigration reform, Sessions was primed to provide leadership from within the executive branch. Any restrictionist bill was already going to be a tough legislative battle, given opposition from Republican elites, corporate America, and the media. Firing Sessions or forcing him to resign would tip the balance of power in the White House even farther away from conservatives towards the New York moderates, very likely killing any chance of immigration reform. And that, in turn, would deprive Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters of their rationale for supporting his presidency. The entire premise of the Trump campaign was that he was, in Steve Bannon’s words, a “blunt instrument” who could be used to push through restrictionist immigration reform and other needed change. The support of Sessions was the social proof of this thesis.

Instead, Trump is proving another theory correct: namely, that he is an incompetent and politically unreliable buffoon. He is not loyal to people who risk their reputations for him, and his promises are worthless. The wall isn’t going to be built, and Mexico isn’t going to pay for it.

David Frum rightly credited Ann Coulter with changing the 2016 election with her tub-thumping immigration-restrictionist book, Adios America. She followed it up with In Trump We Trust. That trust was misplaced. Trump will not be used as a blunt instrument. Rather, he is the one who used Jeff Sessions, and every other populist who supported him. Restrictionists need a new theory for how to translate their ideas into policy.

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