Trump Family Values

Jeff Sessions thought he was on the Trump team, but he was sadly mistaken.

For President Donald Trump, the world breaks down into three neat categories — there’s family, who are part of the charmed Trump circle by blood or marriage; there are “winners,” who have earned Trump’s regard by making lots of money (often at Goldman Sachs); and then there’s everyone else, who are adornments to be cast aside as Trump finds convenient.

Sessions is emphatically in the latter category. If the former Alabama senator wanted to be securely ensconced in Trump world, he should have had the foresight to marry Ivanka. Nothing else — not endorsing early, not lending candidate Trump staff and policy expertise, not carrying water in trying circumstances — will ever make him anything more than some guy who happens to be attorney general of the United States.

Trump’s treatment of Sessions over the past week is unprecedented in the annals of American government. Cabinet officials have been hung out to dry before. They have been frozen out. They have been forced to resign or fired. Never before has a Cabinet secretary been publicly belittled in an ongoing campaign of humiliation by the president who appointed him.

The drama hangs a lantern on Trump’s flaws, not the attorney general’s. Trump lacks gratitude, dismissing Sessions’ endorsement of him in the primaries as merely the senator’s reaction to the size of Trump’s crowds. He obviously doesn’t feel any respect for someone who, as an honorable person with a long career in public service, deserves it. He doesn’t care about propriety, which would dictate dressing down Sessions in private, not flaying him in public. And, finally, he doesn’t feel any loyalty, despite Sessions having given up a safe Senate seat to serve in his administration.

For Trump, loyalty is unilateral, not reciprocal, and it has a very particular content. It’s not loyalty to the agenda (Sessions was onboard the agenda before Trump was) or loyalty to the party (Sessions was a Republican long before the president), but loyalty to Trump, narrowly defined as his ego and his personal interests and honor.

Robert Mueller’s investigation, at the very least, punctures Trump’s ego by creating an ongoing cloud over his election victory (and perhaps creates legal jeopardy for his family members). Insofar as Trump believes that Sessions enabled this assault on his personal honor by recusing himself from the Russian investigation, the attorney general is persona non grata. He might as well have told the president that, yes, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and Barack Obama had a bigger inaugural crowd. Sessions is guilty of what in legal parlance is called a status offense — he’s offended Trump’s status.

As a result, he’s been getting essentially the same treatment as Low Energy Jeb and Cryin’ Chuck Schumer. The attorney general doesn’t have a disparaging nickname, but Trump is demeaning him and using the same weapons he uses against any of his targets — namely, anything at hand, whether or not it makes any sense.

Trump hits Sessions for not pursuing Clinton, when the president himself had called for letting the Clinton scandal go (Hillary had “suffered greatly,” Trump said after the election). He criticizes Sessions for not firing FBI official Andrew McCabe, even though the White House reportedly interviewed McCabe to replace James Comey permanently as FBI director. Sessions should consider himself lucky that Trump has not, as of yet, accused any of his family members of being involved in the assassination of JFK.

Of course, Trump is free to fire Sessions whenever he likes. That he is not doing it and prefers to run him down, apparently in hopes that he will quit, speaks to an unwillingness to take responsibility. He’s not a commentator from the sidelines any more. This is his government; he should either back his appointees or cashier them (or directly order them to do what he wants), not troll them on Twitter.

The episode shows the challenge that Republicans face in Trump. It is not ideological. Substantively, Trump is governing as more or less a conventional Republican. The challenge is characterological. How to work with a president who is key to advancing much of the GOP agenda without endorsing his brazen disregard for institutional and personal norms?

The Sessions imbroglio may blow over as Trump moves on to the next thing, having diminished his AG and himself for no good reason. But it offers a window into how Trump could collapse his own administration — by letting the pressure of criticism and investigation get the best of him, venting his anger uncontrollably, destroying any cohesiveness within his own government and party, and creating an ongoing sense of crisis that eventually really does spin out of control.

If this nightmare scenario becomes reality, the bizarre and small-minded campaign against Jeff Sessions will have been a sign of things to come.

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