Sessions’ Recusal from the Russia Investigation was Fatal for Trump

Evidence is growing that Trump doesn’t have the votes to survive impeachment in the Senate

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

In retrospect, the fatal turning point for Trump happened with astonishing speed.

On November 18, 2016, Trump announced that Senator Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions would be his pick for Attorney General, the man who would run his Department of Justice.

On January 10, 2017, less than two months later, Sessions appeared to tell a lie at his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee when he denied having any contacts with Russians during the campaign.

On February 9, he was sworn in as Attorney General.

Four days later, on February 13, Michael Flynn resigned from his post as Trump’s National Security Adviser, after it was revealed that he had spoken repeatedly with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The next day, February 14, the New York Times reported on its front page that telephone intercepts and records showed that senior Trump officials and campaign aides had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officers during the campaign.

Two weeks later, on March 1, news broke that Sessions was among those who met with Russian Ambassador Kislyak during the campaign. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that Sessions had “lied under oath” during his confirmation hearings. Democrats called for his resignation.

The next day, March 2, fighting for his job, Sessions responded to calls for his resignation by stating, "I have not met with any Russians at any time to discuss any political campaign.” It was quickly pointed out that Sessions was never asked if he had met with Russians “to discuss any political campaign,” but rather if he had met with Russians, period, so his explanation rang hollow.

Sessions huddled with top aides at the Department of Justice, and later the same day, he announced, “I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States."

March 2 will be the day that Trump’s fate was decided, if the report on the front page of The New York Times is to be believed. The Times published yet another in a long series of reports on Trump’s dissatisfaction with his Attorney General for having recused himself from the Russia investigation. This time, the report reveals that Trump pressured Sessions to reverse his recusal decision in an early March, 2017 meeting at Mar-a-Lago. According to the Times, the Mar-a-Lago meeting is being investigated by Mueller’s team as a potential obstruction of justice. Mueller is said to have questioned Sessions himself about the conversation at Mar-a-Lago, making him a key witness in the investigation.

Mueller’s team has also questioned other White House officials about the repeated pressure Trump put on Sessions to retain his control of the Russia investigation. White House counsel Donald McGahn was questioned about a March 1, 2017 meeting with Trump, during which Trump ordered McGahn to lobby Sessions not to recuse himself.

Sessions responded to this by telling McGahn, and thus Trump, that he had to follow Justice Department regulations and recuse himself from investigations into any matters in which he had a personal connection. Since Sessions was an official on the Trump campaign, he was forbidden under Justice Department rules from having anything to do with investigations into that campaign.

Trump has repeatedly criticized Sessions for his recusal from the Russia investigation. In July of 2017, Trump told the New York Times, “Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president,” he added. “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”

But Trump is ignoring the fact that there was no Russia investigation that anyone knew of, either in November of 2016 when Sessions was appointed, or in February when he was sworn in as Attorney General. He could hardly have told Trump that he would recuse himself from an investigation that neither he or Trump knew was underway. Sessions didn’t betray Trump. Trump is betraying Sessions by lying about what happened.

Trump appears to have suffered multiple delusions about the powers he would have as president, the way the government works in Washington under the law, and the norms that have been established between the White House and the Department of Justice over the years.

The first delusion Trump had was that as president, he would be able to call in his Attorney General and order him to do anything he wanted. Prosecuting his opponent Hillary Clinton for her “emails” comes immediately to mind. Trump seems to have believed that if he appointed Jeff Sessions as Attorney General he could depend on the bantam former Senator from Alabama to watch his back when it came to investigations into his campaign or former business dealings.

It must have come as quite a shock to Trump to realize that laws and regulations stood between Trump and his control of the levers of justice through his Attorney General.

The other thing Trump probably never knew, or dismissed out of hand, was that Washington D.C. is indeed a “small town” when it comes to the inner workings of the government, and especially when it comes to the United States Senate. The Senate has always seen itself as an exclusive club of 100 members, and they’ve always been very protective of the way they operate, and of their own members, especially within the two political parties.

With only 51 members, the Republican caucus in the Senate is especially tight-knit. The Times may have buried the lede when they reported well down in their story today that “Mr. Trump complains to friends about how much he would like to get rid of Mr. Sessions but has demurred under pressure from Senate Republicans who have indicated they would not confirm a new attorney general.”

Huh? Who knew Senate Republicans had passed the word to Trump that if he fired Sessions, they wouldn’t confirm a new attorney general? You know who that would leave as Acting Attorney General, don’t you? Rod Rosenstein, Trump’s other bete noire, the man who appointed Robert Mueller as Special Counsel and who has given Mueller authority to investigate pretty much anything he wants when it comes to Trump and Russia.

In the clubby world of the United States Senate, Jeff Sessions is still one of them. Retired Senators are afforded lifetime access to the Senate dining room and health club, not to mention being welcomed on the floor of the Senate should they want to visit. Sessions was a Senator for 21 years. If Trump thought his Republican buddies were going to walk away from him, he was not just sadly, but perhaps fatally mistaken.

There aren’t many Republican Senators who have been openly critical of Trump since he was elected. Jeff Flake has made a few passing bleats, and Bob Corker has implied that most of his colleagues see Trump as an incompetent baby, but that’s about it. And neither of them are running for re-election.

But if you go looking for Republican Senators who have given full-throated defenses of Trump since the Russia investigation began, they are few and far between. Much more typical is Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has run what appears to be an eminently fair and bipartisan investigation of the Trump campaign and its connections to Russia alongside his Democratic counterpart, John Warner of Virginia.

The Senate committee was briefed in private about the Russia investigation under top secret security in a secure meeting room known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF by James Comey before he was fired as FBI Director. They also had a top secret briefing by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, after which Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters that the Russia investigation had morphed from a counterintelligence investigation into a criminal one. The chair and co-chair of the committee were also briefed by Robert Mueller about his investigation. The Senate Intelligence Committee knows a lot about the Russia investigation, and unlike the House Intelligence Committee under Trump lackey Devin Nunes, they haven’t issued a hastily slapped together exoneration of Trump.

All of which may go a long way to explaining why Republican Senators appear to be standing by their pal Sessions and are showing an unusually strong willingness to protect him. They know stuff about Trump that we don’t know, and clearly, it’s not good.

There is only one reason Trump went so far in his efforts to get Sessions to take back control of the Russia investigation. He thought he could depend on the loyalty of Sessions to protect him. Sessions was the first and only Senator to back Trump early in his campaign. He has been Trump’s soul mate when it comes to immigration policy, racial politics, and a “law and order” stand on issues of drugs, prisons, and sentencing.

But what Trump has never understood is that men like Sessions — and the rest of the Senate for that matter — spend their entire lives dreaming of being elected to the Senate and joining Washington’s clubbiest club. They want the power that comes with being a Senator, of course, but they also want the lifestyle. They relish the nights out on the town, when Senators are afforded the best tables in the hottest restaurants. They look forward to the cocktail parties, and the invitations to galas at the Kennedy Center.

Every single one of them spent a lifetime looking forward to all the pomp and circumstance of Washington, and what do they get with Trump? So far, one State Dinner (to which he failed to invite a single Democrat), and no White House reception during the Kennedy Center Honors. Where are the invitations to the White House for evenings of entertainment by the kind of famous, talented musicians who performed at the White House under Obama —  James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger? Hell, Trump hasn’t even had them over to listen to Ted Nugent.

With the likes of Trey Gowdy and Mitch McConnell refusing to join Trump’s Fox News amen chorus screaming “spygate” after the briefings by the Department of Justice and the Director of National Intelligence last week, Trump is left with the likes of Dim Bulb Nunes and the House Freedom Caucus to defend him. That’s not good.

It’s impossible to tell at this point, but it’s beginning to look like Trump would have a hard time putting the votes together to fight impeachment in the Senate. He doesn’t have a single Democrat, and Republicans aren’t exactly lining up to follow him over the cliff.

It’s looking more and more like we are approaching that famous moment during Watergate when three senior Republican Senators got in a black car at the Capitol and drove up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House and told Richard Nixon that he wouldn’t survive an impeachment vote in the Senate. They told him if he wanted to avoid certain indictment and possible conviction for federal crimes once he left office, he had better resign and make a deal for a pardon with his Vice President, Gerald Ford, who would succeed him as president. Which is what he did.

Trump isn’t that far from facing the same decision. He has been acting like a guilty man since the day he panicked over Sessions’ recusal. A Watergate-style Saturday night massacre of his top law enforcement officers isn’t going to save him any more than it saved Richard Nixon. If Trump were to be impeached by the House and found guilty by the Senate, he would leave office with no protections at all against indictment and conviction for god-only-knows what crimes he’s committed with Russians and other thugs. His business empire would be in jeopardy. He may as well start looking forward to spending his retirement at Mar-a-Leavenworth.

The only news on the horizon for Trump is bad news. If I were him, I’d start worrying about looking out of the White House windows and seeing the headlights of that black car driving up Pennsylvania Avenue in the dark.

 

 

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Lucian K. Truscott IV has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter, covering stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott.