We don’t know yet if firing Jeff Sessions will work—the good news is that Democrats will soon have subpoena power, and this is still enough of a democracy that public opinion does ultimately matter.
But let’s just take a step back here and call this Wednesday Afternoon Massacre what it is: an attempt by a president of the United States who is under investigation to subvert the law and end that investigation.
In fact, this is the second attempt by this president of the United States to subvert the law and end the investigation into him.
The first of course was Trump’s firing in May 2017 of then-FBI director James Comey. That was so many WTFs ago that you may find it hard to recall the shock that, if you are a person who understands the Constitution, the rule of law, and the traditions of independence that every modern president except Trump and Richard Nixon have honored, surely registered when you first heard the news.
It was shocking in part because presidents don’t fire FBI directors. It had happened only once before. Bill Clinton did it in 1993. Oh, say the wingnuts: Clinton did it! Double standard!
But in reality, anyone who has the ability to read beyond a headline already knew or quickly learned that the circumstances of Clinton’s dismissal of William Sessions were completely unlike the circumstances of Trump’s firing of Comey. Sessions wasn’t investigating Clinton. He fired Sessions in response to a scathing Justice Department report on Sessions’ lapses. Clinton upheld the law in firing Sessions. Trump spat on the law in firing Comey.
And then, remember Trump’s admission on NBC that he fired Comey because of Russia? That was arguably even more shocking than the act, except that nothing is shocking coming from Trump. And then—you may have missed this part—two months ago, he was asked if he had any regrets with regard to Comey. Why yes, he said. He should have fired him “the day I won the primaries.” Of course, the day he “won the primaries,” the president was Barack Obama, and the only person who can fire an FBI director is a president, and Trump later corrected himself, but the idea that his instinct was to think and say that could fire an FBI director as the nominee of his party is worth remembering.
And now, we have firing number two. On this matter, let’s first say this. Jeff Sessions is a reactionary white supremacist, but in recusing himself from the probe into the Trump campaign, he did the right thing. He may have offensive policy priorities, and will live in ignominy for his role in implementing the family separation border policy alone. But he at least could read the Justice Department rule book. Recusing himself was the right call, the easy call, the only call. Trump called this move, the one honorable thing Sessions did, a “disgrace.” On multiple occasions.
And Trump knows what he’s doing in putting Matthew Whitaker in there. Whitaker has a history of saying, mostly on CNN, before he became Sessions’ deputy, that Robert Mueller was “crossing a line” by expanding his probe, and that a non-girly-man attorney general would bring Mueller’s probe to “almost a halt” by slashing his budget.
Notably, before all this, Whitaker tried his hand at electoral politics. Remember how Joni Ernst in Iowa in 2014 steamrolled her opponents in the Republican primary for Senate by releasing that famous ad about castrating pigs? One of those steamrollees was Matt Whitaker. He finished a distant fourth out of six contestants, garnering just 7.5 percent of the vote. But before he lost, he did find time at a four-candidate debate—moderated by Erick Erickson!—to outflank Ernst and the other two to their right by answering a question about the criteria they’d establish for federal judges. As the others invoked “natural law,” Whitaker said natural law was all well and good but not enough—he’d seek to ascertain whether the nominee had a “biblical view of justice,” adding: “As long as they have that worldview, then they’ll be a good judge,” he said. “And if they have a secular worldview, where this is all we have here on Earth, then I’m going to be very concerned about how they judge.”
So that’s the man who as of Wednesday afternoon holds the Constitution in his hands.
Trump has wanted to fire Sessions since about his second month in office. He thinks the attorney general is supposed to be loyal to him. And here’s the thing. He has to know that’s wrong. There’s the alternative explanation, that he doesn’t even know. But he isn’t that stupid. Even if he gets his classes in constitutional law from Fox & Friends, surely he has heard that chirpy troika explain that “there are those who say” that the Justice Department is supposed to be independent of the White House before they go on to rebut it. He knows. He doesn’t care. That’s a lot worse than not knowing, because it means laws mean nothing to him.
He thinks the Justice Department should belong to him. And he thinks he can get away with it. And after Tuesday, he figures he’d better get away with it fast. The Democrats taking the House make this harder for him, but it will depend on the Republicans, too. It’s time to recycle those 15-month-old vows GOP senators made that firing Mueller would cross a red line.
Crunch time draws near.