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Trump and Sessions: In a Relationship — and It’s Complicated

Strife with presidents is common for post-Watergate AGs

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was one of President  Donald Trump’s early supporters. But their relationship has become more complicated. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was one of President  Donald Trump’s early supporters. But their relationship has become more complicated. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last week that the Trump administration would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, he was also signaling a new act in one of the summer’s most riveting political dramas. 

Sessions had been considered a dead man walking since mid-July, when Trump began berating him in interviews and on social media for his decision to recuse himself from the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Yet here he was, on a podium, serving as a proxy for the president as he announced a controversial policy decision that Sessions has sought for years — and on which Trump was reportedly wavering. 

It was not clear whether Sessions and Trump had reached a truce. It was not even clear if they agreed about the end of the amnesty program for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Sessions was unequivocal in his statement that the DACA program is being “rescinded.” Trump tweeted hours later that he would ultimately leave it to Congress to “legalize DACA.” 

But at least Trump had stopped publicly mulling Sessions’ replacement and tweeting insults. His new chief of staff John F. Kelly had assured Sessions that his job was safe.

Sessions, meanwhile, had seemingly ingratiated himself with a rapid-fire series of announcements that did more to advance Trump’s policy agenda than the actions of any other Cabinet member. (Before DACA, there was the decision to allow police departments to receive surplus military equipment, the redirection of the Justice Department’s civil rights resources to take on universities that engage in “intentional race-based discrimination,” and the new policy to track down and prosecute alleged “leakers.”) 

So does that mean Trump and Sessions are going to be friends again? Not likely, according to experts on the attorney general’s office who spoke to Roll Call. 

With several investigations of the Trump campaign looming, and the president convinced that Sessions is responsible — at least in part — their relationship will undoubtedly remain tricky and could boil over again at any time.

While there is no precedent to Trump’s public attacks on Sessions, the strain in their relationship is not unusual, experts on the office of attorney general say. 

Instead, Sessions and Trump are demonstrating a pattern that has emerged time and again in presidential administrations since Watergate: It is very hard for the president and the attorney general to be friends — in fact, conflict between the two might be a sign the system is working. 

“By definition, the attorney general and the president of the United States are going to have conflict,” said David A. Yalof, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut  who wrote a book about DOJ investigations of the executive branch, “Prosecution Among Friends.”

“It’s inevitable,” Yalof said. “That’s because it’s the nature of being the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, is that occasionally you have to make decisions that are not in the president’s political interest. That’s the job.”

Too close for comfort?

Sessions and Trump have not always been at odds. The former Alabama senator’s early endorsement of Trump was considered pivotal to the campaign. His ideas were central to Trump’s platform. He helped select many of Trump’s top advisers, including senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, who helped Trump formulate his travel ban based on ideas he incubated as Sessions’ communications director. 

Trump made it clear that he expected Sessions’ continued loyalty. Taking the job was also a shrewd political calculation for Sessions, “a lifelong outsider,” according The New York Times, who had been passed over for a committee chairmanship and sidelined by colleagues who thought his views too extreme.

Heading Trump’s Justice Department would give him an opportunity to actually craft policies based on those convictions, some of which he and Trump shared. And that’s appropriate, according to Yalof. 

“It’s a political appointment,” Yalof said. “The expectation is that the president is allowed to appoint people because they’re from a certain political party, or because they have certain ideological viewpoints.”

Sessions’ close association with the campaign, though, almost guaranteed that he would face a conflict if there were legal questions about the election, which is, of course, what happened. 

Trump has made no secret of his desire to quash the Russia investigation and rid himself of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who wants to interview current and former White House officials as part of his probe.

With Sessions’ recusal from the inquiry, Mueller could only be fired by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed him, and only for cause. But if Trump were to fire Sessions — who serves at the will of the president — it might accomplish the same goal. Trump could appoint a new attorney general, or acting attorney general, who would be able to take charge of the investigation. 

Trump’s public fuming over the summer likely did permanent damage to Sessions’ position. 

“It undermines Sessions’ ability to speak for the president and to do his job,” Yalof said. “It also could be interpreted by some as an underlying threat for the attorney general to take actions he doesn’t want to.” 

But Sessions also has some cards to play. 

“If you fire a person because of a legitimate recusal, you are almost saying we’re not going to have these types of recusals, and that’s a very big problem.” Yalof said. 

And lawmakers who know Sessions personally from his two decades in Congress have come out in force to defend him, warning Trump that he would face serious political repercussions if Sessions goes. (Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, for example, that Trump would face “holy hell” if Sessions goes.) 

A schizophrenic job

Sessions is far from the first attorney general to have a complicated relationship with the president who appointed him.

Before Watergate, attorneys general were expected to act chiefly as presidential advisers and confidants — the extreme example is John F. Kennedy’s appointment of his own brother, Robert F. Kennedy. But that changed with the infamous resignation of President Richard Nixon’s attorney general, Elliot L. Richardson.

Richardson’s decision to step down, rather than follow Nixon’s order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor who was closing in on the Oval Office, underlined the importance of independence in the Justice Department. Since then, the post has been mired in contradictions.

The attorney general is beholden to the president for his job, but he must also answer to Congress and the judiciary branch. He — and besides Janet Reno and Loretta Lynch, it has always been a he — interprets and enacts the president’s agenda. But he must also ensure the president follows the law, including launching investigations of the Oval Office when necessary. That last duty is what often trips up attorneys general. 

“Only the Kennedy brothers had the pre-existing intimacy to work stuff out in deep private,” said Robert Raben, who was an assistant attorney general under Reno. “Every other relationship is fraught. Period.”

Raben is now the president of The Raben Group, a public affairs and strategic communications firm. 

Recent history is littered with examples of attorneys general who got in trouble because of their close relationships with the president.

Ronald Reagan appointed his close friend and onetime chief of staff, Edwin Meese, only to have Meese become embroiled, along with other members of the Reagan administration, in the Iran-Contra affair.

George W. Bush’s onetime mentor, Alberto Gonzales, was forced to resign over allegations that he had fired U.S. attorneys because they were perceived to be disloyal to the Bush administration and the GOP. (Sessions, notably, was among the members of Congress to call for him to step down.)

And Eric H. Holder Jr.’s service as Barack Obama’s campaign adviser before he was appointed attorney general opened him to repeated criticism from Republicans in Congress. Holder was held in contempt by a congressional panel over the botched Fast and Furious investigation.

Fortuitously frosty 

On the other extreme, a buffer between the Justice Department and the White House can protect the president.

That’s what happened with Bill Clinton and Reno, who had one of the more difficult personal relationships of any president and attorney general pair in recent history. 

With her exceptional height and unyielding determination to speak her mind, Reno — Clinton’s third choice for the job — was a misfit in Clinton’s clubby White House. He kept her so far outside his personal orbit that a Clinton confidante referred to her in private as “the Martian,” according to a 1997 New Yorker profile. They also clashed professionally. 

Reno reportedly angered Clinton from the outset with the appointment of a series of independent counsels to investigate Clinton’s friends and political allies. She later opened the Whitewater investigation — albeit at Clinton’s request — that dogged him throughout his time in office. That probe eventually resulted in the appointment of Kenneth Starr and Clinton’s impeachment. 

Public knowledge of their personal distance worked in Clinton and Reno’s favor during one of the bigger scandals of the Clinton administration, the allegations of campaign finance irregularities during the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. That episode, by coincidence, also involved alleged foreign meddling in American elections — this time by China.

Reno refused to appoint yet another independent counsel, opening her to a barrage of criticism from Republicans in Congress and even FBI Director Louis Freeh. But it was difficult for anyone to make the argument that she was trying to protect the president. 

“I have gone out of my way to have no conversation with her about this, or frankly, anything else,” Clinton said at the time.

It does not seem that a permanent rift with Sessions would do as much good for Trump, with Sessions sidelined on the Russia investigation.

But Trump, for his part, has provided his own memorable commentary on the state of his relationship with Sessions. 

The last time Trump spoke publicly about it was in August, when he made this glowing assessment: “It’s fine,” and “it is what it is.”

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