The underlying message of his tweets and other remarks over the past six months, including those aimed at federal judges, suggests that Trump believes he need not adhere to usual legal norms and stands ready to humiliate anyone who crosses him.
In the past two days, Trump deemed Sessions, who recused himself from the ongoing Russian probe to avoid a conflict of interest, “beleaguered” and asserted he had taken a “very weak position” on “crimes” of Hillary Clinton, his 2016 election opponent.
“I am disappointed in the attorney general,” Trump said during a Tuesday news conference. He repeated his assertion that he would never have chosen Sessions if he knew the then-Alabama senator would recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
Unlike his usual broadsides, these attacks do not appear aimed at influencing politics but at influencing key players in legal proceedings. The effort to discredit Sessions, along with Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director, recalls the President’s earlier criticism of federal judges.
Trump criticized McCabe via Twitter Tuesday morning, referring to fundraising efforts from Clinton allies for an unsuccessful Senate run by McCabe’s wife, Dr. Jill McCabe, in 2015.
And as happened in the lawsuits over his travel ban, Trump’s missives could be unpersuasive and even undermine his legal positions.
On the whole, it is difficult to see how any of the fights he is picking in the legal realm have helped him.
One of his most controversial moves so far, targeting and ultimately sacking FBI Director James Comey, whom he called a “nut job,” arguably backfired. That led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller in the Russian probe that Trump loathes. Mueller and his legal team are investigating whether anyone in the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe last March, saying he could not oversee an investigation into the Trump campaign when he had been part of that campaign. In fact, during the 2016 race, he was one of Trump’s most loyal and visible supporters.
Trump’s targeting of Sessions and other law enforcement officials stands out because prosecutors are supposed to work independently, not check with the White House on whom to indict.
As Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, defended Sessions, he emphasized, “Prosecutorial decisions should be based on applying facts to the law without hint of political motivation. To do otherwise is to run away from the longstanding American tradition of separating the law from politics regardless of party.”
While the President’s latest complaints regarding Sessions and possible prosecutions seem especially off base, Trump has been belittling legal processes since his campaign days.
Last year, he derided US District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, hearing a fraud claim in San Diego against Trump University, for his Mexican heritage, saying the judge would not be fair in the case because of Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the southern US border.
After he became President, Trump referred to a “so-called judge” who temporarily blocked his travel ban covering certain Muslim-dominated countries, and said “if something happens blame him and the court system.”
Federal judges have countered Trump’s efforts to discredit them by asserting their independence as they’ve ruled against parts of his policy in the travel ban cases.
One judge who sided with Trump nonetheless took the opportunity to decry personal attacks. US Court of Appeals Judge Jay Bybee, of the 9th Circuit, did not name Trump but rejected his criticism as “out of all bounds of civil and persuasive discourse.”
“Such personal attacks treat the court as though it were merely a political forum in which bargaining, compromise, and even intimidation are accepted principles.”
Now, with his attacks on Sessions, a former senator from Alabama, Trump is uniting senators. Republicans and Democrats have defended Sessions.
“He did the right thing, he recused himself,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California. “The attorney general of United States doesn’t work for the President of the United States.”
She said that if Trump ends up firing Sessions it will send the message that what matters to Trump is not doing “the right thing,” but rather, doing “his bidding.”