Lincoln's lesson for Donald Trump about Jeff Sessions

Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her bestselling Lincoln biography, "Team of Rivals," describes a wise President who filled h...

Posted: Mar 2, 2018 2:57 PM
Updated: Mar 2, 2018 2:57 PM

Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her bestselling Lincoln biography, "Team of Rivals," describes a wise President who filled his Cabinet with political rivals. During his difficult, war-torn presidency, Lincoln earned their respect and saved the Union. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has populated his staff and Cabinet with those he perceives as "loyal," and given the pace of first year departures (at least 37 resigned or were fired), he appears to be earning only their enmity.

The latest case in point is Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

On Tuesday, the President, an expert in the art of invective, escalated his seeming efforts to force the resignation of the usually docile and supportive attorney general. He accused Sessions of "disgraceful" conduct for referring allegations of FBI and Justice Department improprieties outlined in the House Intelligence Committee's "Nunes memo" to DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, rather than to regular Justice lawyers. The attorney general, for the first time, publicly returned rhetorical fire. He noted in a statement that:

"As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution."

In fact, the Sessions referral was entirely appropriate as the inspector general exists for exactly this purpose. An agency or department, such as Justice, cannot fairly investigate itself. The inspector general functions as an independent investigator, free from the bureaucratic biases and pressures of the entity under investigation.

After conducting an investigation, the IG is free to make recommendations for criminal charges or other remedial measures as warranted. Ironically, Horowitz, the inspector general now scorned by the President, was the individual who revealed the existence of the potential biases of FBI lawyer Lisa Page and FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok that have been a central aspect of claims made in the Nunes memo and which were subsequently adopted by the President. (The memo was countered by a forceful Democratic response.)

There is no more appropriate individual to continue the probe than Horowitz.

Start of a beautiful friendship

The painful Sessions saga begins with his numerous professions of devotion to Donald Trump during the early stages of the campaign. As the Republican establishment steadily turned against Trump's unruly populist candidacy, Alabama's Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III became the first US senator to endorse the reality television star from New York City.

It is hard to imagine a more unlikely pair than Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump. Sessions wears his strict moral code on his sleeve and in fiery rhetoric denounces as threats to the nation such things as legalized marijuana and the scourge of "criminal" immigrants. In contrast, Trump surrogates have lately devoted much of their time to trying to explain away allegations of hush-money payoffs and "catch and kill" deals designed to cover up alleged Trump liaisons with porn stars and playmates.

Despite the critical importance of Sessions' early endorsement, the President apparently wants Sessions out. Trump professes a fervent belief in loyalty, but for him, the trait is a one-way street running only in his direction. The President's anger is focused primarily on Sessions' decision to recuse himself from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia Investigation. Sessions has responded quite correctly that his recusal was required under existing law and Department of Justice internal regulations.

The President's latest attack is part of an unrelenting stream of insults directed at Mr. Sessions. The insult list has included "idiot" (May 17), "beleaguered" (July 24) "VERY weak" (July 25), "very disappointed" with him (July 25), he did a "terrible thing" (December 28) and "Disgraceful!" (February 28).

The "DISGRACEFUL" reference followed what must have been a particularly humiliating incident for Sessions when he attended a February 28 meeting with the President. As recounted by The Wall Street Journal, Trump said during the gathering: "I also want to thank a really tremendous attorney general." He then turned to Florida's attorney general, seated next to him stating, "That's Pam Bondi, from Florida."

Sessions' reply was long overdue

Under the circumstances, Sessions' forceful response to Trump's latest insult was not only justified but long overdue. The statement of the attorney general belatedly affirms the important legal principle that though the attorney general serves at the pleasure of the president, his paramount duty is to the Constitution and the rule of law.

Given the President's continuing vituperative attacks, it is incredible that the once-proud Sessions refuses to resign. In this, he is probably doing Trump a favor in that the act of firing Sessions could later be added to the list of potential "obstruction of justice" behaviors in a final Mueller report to Congress at the conclusion of the special counsel's investigation.

Trump has undoubtedly been advised by his lawyers that firing Sessions would only compound the problems he created when firing FBI Director James Comey after allegedly seeking a loyalty pledge. The President appears to be hopeful that he can insult and intimidate Sessions into a resignation, preserving the presidential defense that "I could have fired him, but I didn't. His resignation was voluntary."

Abraham Lincoln would have handled the situation differently. That's why it's doubtful that Jeff Sessions will send a resignation letter that is similar in any way to the one Lincoln received in 1864 from his first attorney general, Edward Bates:

"In tendering the resignation of my office of Attorney-General of the United States (which I now do) I gladly seize the occasion to repeat the expression of my gratitude, not only for your good opinion which lead to my appointment, but also for your uniform and unvarying courtesy and kindness during the whole time in which we have been associated in the public service."

Signed: Edward Bates

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