New York Times (Op-Ed)
By Quin Hillyer
July 27, 2017
MOBILE, Ala. — Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, the Queens-born developer and the Alabama lawyer, are finding that similar positions on political issues can mask deep differences on underlying principles.
For Mr. Trump, who has excoriated his attorney general on Twitter and reportedly discussed firing him, what matters most is personal loyalty to him, or rather loyalty to whatever he thinks his needs are at any particular moment. For Mr. Sessions, fealty to the law trumps all. For Republicans nationwide, it’s an acid test: side with a mercurial president who demands devotion, or with the attorney general, who insists on probity and the letter of the law.
If there’s one thing you need to know about Mr. Sessions, it’s that he reveres the Constitution, as he understands it. He was the author, in his first Senate term, of a law that established a commission to commemorate the 250th birthday of the “father of the Constitution,” James Madison, in 2001, and to use it as an occasion for constitutional and civic education. Mr. Sessions introduced Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist at the birthday gala, and personally convened a symposium of Madisonian scholars that met in conjunction with it.
For better or worse, Mr. Sessions sees the world in black-and-white, law-and-order terms — criminals on one side and trustworthy law enforcement on the other. That’s one reason he has re-expanded the use of civil asset forfeiture, drawing intense (and deserved) criticism from across the political spectrum. He takes the same approach with illegal narcotics.
This same worldview explains why he so readily recused himself from the Russia investigation; for him, this was a simple procedural question. In Senate testimony he accurately described the effective meaning of the regulation that governed his recusal: “Department employees should not participate in investigations of a campaign if they have served as a campaign adviser.”
Moreover, he has deep faith in the American political system and its institutions. He is deeply trusting of the Justice Department’s criminal division; his highly regarded deputy, Rod Rosenstein; and the professionalism of the F.B.I. rank and file. In Mr. Sessions’ mind, removing himself from the equation put Mr. Trump in no more or less legal danger than before, because the facts and the law would lead where they would lead, regardless of his participation.
If anything, Mr. Sessions most likely thought he was doing what was best for the president. If Mr. Trump is investigated and found innocent, then it would be in the president’s political interest to be found innocent in an investigation that is not under the purview of Mr. Sessions, who until recently was considered tremendously close to the president.
But it’s unlikely that loyalty or partisan politics entered his mind. As a prosecutor, Mr. Sessions had a distinguished record of going after Republican officials accused of misdeeds and of declining to pursue Democratic officials he thought (correctly, as it turned out) were wrongly charged.
This is the man Mr. Trump hired, and reportedly now wants to fire. If he thought he was getting a lackey, a wingman or the political equivalent of a capo, he was sorely mistaken. (Indeed, Mr. Trump, knowing that his base likes Mr. Sessions, is probably hoping the constant abuse will force him to resign. If so, Mr. Trump is picking on the wrong guy.)
Liberals who excoriated Mr. Sessions probably won’t like him after this episode is over, whatever the outcome. But any fair-minded person must grant that unlike his boss, Mr. Sessions has the courage of his convictions. He believes illegal immigration hurts low-skilled American workers. He believes illegal narcotics ruin lives. He believes (wrongly) that trade protectionism helps American workers. He backed Mr. Trump last year, despite concerns about Mr. Trump’s bombastic disregard for social norms to which Mr. Sessions himself adheres, because he saw Mr. Trump as a fellow believer who, for all his flaws, had the actual ability to achieve those ends.
Mr. Sessions got tremendous criticism from longtime friends and allies here in Alabama for endorsing Mr. Trump so early in the 2016 primaries. I’ve been given rather detailed descriptions of some of those private conversations; Mr. Sessions was polite as ever, but stuck to his guns.
His former colleagues in the Senate made haste on Tuesday to defend him. They clearly are appalled by Mr. Trump’s one-way loyalty test. Reports have several cabinet members also in near revolt over Mr. Trump’s mistreatment of Mr. Sessions. But those statements of support for the attorney general were the easy part. How they follow through in the coming weeks, especially if the president fires him, will determine whether they are remembered as principled lawmakers or craven pols.
Jeff Sessions’ principled obeisance to the rule of law may be foreign to the president, but eventually this truth will hit close to home: If Mr. Trump knifes rather than protects his friends, soon no friends will remain to watch Mr. Trump’s back.
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