Open Season On Sessions
Last Wednesday, President Trump honored The New York Times with an hour’s audience in the Oval Office. It was the first time since his taking office that the paper and the president would meet. Probably, this was for the best. As of late, the two have become inveterate enemies, sworn opponents, and overt foes. The president complains of the newspaper’s slanted coverage and Tweets responses like salvos in the forms of vitriolic op-eds; the Times, having pushed his buttons, provoked a discussion, and promoted its agenda, simply smiles and carries on. Between them, the truth lies, but neither has particular alacrity in finding or grasping it. For this reason, it was surprising to learn that Trump would countenance this type of unabridged, unscripted long-form interview, much less with the anathematized The New York Times. Till now, he’d been uncharacteristically coy in front of the media. He hadn’t sat for an interview of this type and of this breadth for months.
Our patience was rewarded. The contents of his interview with the Times proved delicious. They were remarkable, but not so much for how they would eventually appear to us above the fold, but for their accompanied audio. Captured and then released by the reporters, as if they’d gotten hold of an unguided bird or a desultory dove, was Trump’s and the Times’ candid conversation. This, and not the printed story in black and white, is what made headlines. As if goading, charming, and tiring a bull to its knees, the three Times reporters—Maggie Haberman, Peter Baker, and Michael Schmidt—worked on the president with incisive ease and finesse. They lent the president just enough rope with which he might hang himself, and as if an eagerly condemned man upon the gallows might, he tightened the noose and pulled the lever.
Having studied Trump’s idiosyncrasies for the past two years (a daunting and exhausting task, no doubt), the reporters were able to pull from this president many admissions and details that mightn’t have been so openly volunteered. They baited him with brief, open-ended questions to which Trump responded at length. He is loquacious and naturally affable, but, more importantly, careless in his speech. He’s prone, if given the platform and the time, to talk himself into trouble, and it’s a trouble and a hole from which he’s rarely able to climb.
The reporters succeeded in getting the president to dig himself into a hole. They brought him to a place from which he could air his grievances about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which, as of late, have been mounting. They asked Trump if it was fair to him, as the president of the United States, for Jeff Sessions to have recused himself from the ongoing Russian investigations. Bitingly, Trump responded by saying that “Sessions should have never recused himself” and that, had that been the Attorney General’s intention all along, Trump would’ve “picked somebody else” to serve as the nation’s chief prosecutor. Impugning Sessions even further, Trump came quite near calling his Attorney General a traitor. He called Session’s move to recuse himself, “extremely unfair” and that a harsher word, should he be so articulate to find it, might better apply.
It’s really too bad to see Jeff Sessions treated in this way. He was, after all, Donald Trump’s earliest and most ardent supporter. This was during the time when the mere concept of a “president” Donald Trump was, at best, farfetched and, at worst, risible; him winning the presidency was thought to be impossible, chimerical, but—in the minds of most pundits—laughable. Even so, Sessions saw in the former Celebrity Apprentice some kind of inexplicable, intuitive potential that others at the time could not (or dared not). To Trump, Sessions was immediately and enduringly loyal even though, politically speaking, it benefitted the Alabama Senator little. One would think that Trump couldn’t forget such devotion so quickly. As we’ve learned, if he values nothing else (and it’s quite possible that he does value nothing else), Trump values loyalty and respect. It’s what sustains all of his relationships and strengthens all of his bonds. It’s why he invests so much of his attention into the opinions of family members and friends—neither of whom are likely to proffer intelligible advice on nuanced issues like tariffs, immigration, or budget deficits. Yet he turns to them nonetheless.
But now, even after having been assiduously and loyally devoted to Trump for well over a year, Sessions is seeing his fortunes change and his prospects diminish. He’s become a new and what I can only assume will be a persistent persona non grata in the eyes of Trump. The president went so far as to openly express to the Times his desire for a new Attorney General to replace Jeff Sessions. To besmirch Sessions’ good name still further, Trump sent out a string of Tweets, in which he aligned his Attorney General with Hillary Clinton. In his words, he complained that “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes and intel leakers” and questioned that “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign - ‘quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G.” and finally, a day before the previous two, he wondered aloud, “why aren't the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleaguered A.G., looking into Crooked Hillary’s crimes & Russia relations?"
If in fact Attorney General Sessions is beleaguered, it’s only so far as Trump is doing the beleaguering. Otherwise, in his role thus far, he’s performed creditably. Contentious though it may be, he’s helped to implement the travel ban, he’s sharpened his criticism on sanctuary cities, and he’s taken definitive steps toward addressing the opioid epidemic. All of these moves that Session’s has made are quite in line with the various measures Trump wants put in to place. So, professionally and politically, when one considers just the results, Sessions is doing fine. It’s the third “p”—personally—where he is failing. Sessions has evidently lost, and likely won’t regain, the essential gut-level personal affinity that Trump prizes most. This, in the eyes of President Trump, is the ultimate measure of a man, and to this end, Sessions appears to be falling painfully and obviously short.