Washington and the media are agog at Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which describes in vivid detail a President intellectually and emotionally unfit for his office, a man treated by his staff and advisers as a child. Trump has in characteristic fashion struck back on Twitter, calling the author a “total loser” and proclaiming himself a “stable genius.” Although many observers concluded that the book tended only to confirm what had previously been observed and reported, it has sparked renewed conversation about whether Trump could be removed under the terms of the Twenty Fifth Amendment. That amendment does provide a process for removal of a president on grounds of mental as well as physical capacity, but its cumbersome procedures have little or no practical application under present circumstances.
The most telling vignette of life in the Trump White House may have come not from Wolff’s book but from an article by Michael Schmidt in the New York Times. The article describes Trump’s fury last May after Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided that his own role in the Trump campaign required him to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Trump viewed that decision as a betrayal and even dispatched the White House Counsel, Don McGahn to persuade Sessions not to take the clearly required action. When McGahn failed in his dubious mission, Trump erupted in anger, furious that Sessions had failed to appreciate that, as Trump saw it, his primary duty as Attorney General was to protect Trump. “Where,” Trump asked plaintively, “is my Roy Cohn?” If the question might seem odd to some, many understood it immediately.
Early in his career, the late Roy Cohn became notorious for his role as counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Later he became a successful lawyer in New York City, combining a flair for ruthless tactics with unethical conduct that would ultimately see him disbarred. As Trump once told the Associated Press after hiring Cohn, “If you need someone to get vicious toward an opponent, you get Roy.” Cohn not only acted as Trump’s lawyer for many years before his disbarment, but also served as Trump’s mentor, and the two became close personal friends. Trump abandoned Cohn only when the latter lay dying of AIDS, causing Cohn to observe “Donald pisses ice water.”
Lacking a Roy Cohn, Trump’s unhappiness with Sessions only increased when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to conduct the Russia investigation. Trump correctly perceived that he was now further removed from being able to control the probe. In July, Trump told the New York Times that the Sessions’ recusal was “unfair” and that, had he anticipated it, he would not have appointed Sessions. In the ensuing months, Trump would post an extraordinary series of tweets attacking Sessions not for the recusal but for the failure to prosecute Hillary Clinton. Two examples from, typically, the middle of the night:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers! (2:12 AM – July 25, 2017)
Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems.. (3:57 AM – 3 Nov 2017)
Many felt that Sessions could not avoid resigning under the continued public criticism from the President, but Sessions has soldiered on. He could not un-recuse himself, but he could at least do something with respect to Hillary Clinton. It has now been reported that the FBI has reopened investigations into both the Clinton Foundation and Clinton’s misuse of emails. It is possible that there are legitimate grounds for further investigation of both matters, but to launch new investigations in the wake of Trump’s heavy-handed and intemperate tweetstorms conveys the worst possible impression of political revenge.
What reason for revenge, one might ask. Didn’t Trump, after all, win the election? Indeed, but he still appears rankled by the fact that Clinton out-polled him in the popular vote, and his feeling is compounded by hatred of any suggestion that he might have benefited from the Russian interference in the election. On the other hand, Trump may simply be turning to attacks on Hillary as a subject that is always popular with his base and also provides a distraction from his ongoing problem with Mueller’s investigation.
The reports of renewed Clinton investigations do not appear to have restored Sessions to Trump’s good graces. This weekend, Sessions was conspicuously omitted from a top-level meeting of Cabinet officers and House and Senate leaders to develop strategy for 2018. It is not clear what more Sessions can do short of wearing a bracelet inscribed WWRD (What Would Roy Do?). It is also unclear how long he will choose to remain at Justice while remaining, as the English might say, in Coventry. Notably, two prominent House conservatives, Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, have called on Sessions to resign. If Sessions were to resign, that would give Trump the opportunity to appoint a new Attorney General who could take on the role of Trump protector, superseding Rosenstein as supervisor of the Russia investigation, possibly dismissing Mueller or simply closing the investigation.
Confirming a replacement Attorney General would presumably subject the nominee to intense scrutiny to determine his or her willingness and ability to perform the AG’s duties with sufficient independence from the President. Trump, however, could circumvent the inconvenience of the confirmation process, for at least a period of time, by appointing an Acting Attorney General who, under the Vacancies Reform Act, could serve in that capacity for up to 210 days. The possibility of a Sessions resignation has been sufficiently alarming that senior Democrats, who were previously critical of Sessions, have sprung to his defense.
As reported by CNN:
Last year, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was blunt in his assessment of Jeff Sessions: “For the good of the country, Attorney General Sessions should resign.”
Now, Schumer and other Democrats have changed their tune, suggesting Sessions should stay in the job as long as special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
“I voted against Jeff Sessions and said he never should be there in the first place, given his record on civil rights, on immigration, on so many other issues,” Schumer said Thursday in the Capitol. “My view now is very simple: nothing, nothing should ever interfere with the Mueller investigation.”
In the meantime, would-be Roy Cohns on Capitol Hill seem determined to do whatever they can to protect the President by creating a distraction. The most recent distraction of choice for Trump loyalists in both the House and the Senate concerns the dossier commissioned by a Washington research firm, Fusion GPS, and compiled by former British Intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Senators Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham released a letter to the Justice Department asking for a criminal investigation concerning “potentially false statements about the distribution of claims from the dossier.” It was a particularly curious step as the potentially false statements were not made to the Committee and did not bear on the accuracy of the dossier’s contents. Although Graham claims to support the Mueller investigation, he has also called for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate possible anti-Trump bias in the FBI. Such a step would not only be a distraction, but would tend to undermine the Mueller investigation. In the House, the irrepressible Devin Nunes battled with Trump’s own appointees, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rosentein, over gaining access to highly classified documents relating to the FBI’s handling of the dossier. This controversy has reportedly been resolved by a compromise under which members of the House Intelligence Committee will be given access to the documents at a Justice Department facility but not provided copies. In any event, the maneuvers by such as Graham, Grassley and Nunes are but a side show that may reveal the state of Republican hearts and minds, but will not do much to protect Trump. Roy Cohn might well have done a bit better.