California Forum

On the improbable achievement of making me feel sorry for Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens during a meeting with President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens during a meeting with President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) AP

One of my small joys, these woeful political days, has been watching the piranhas feast on each other.

Remember when, during the primary season, Trump, the ultimate liar, ridiculed “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” that most detestable and iron-fisted of political creatures? Or when Anthony Scaramucci, who was brought into the White House to take down Reince Preibus, who had been repeatedly humiliated by Donald Trump – even being summoned into a meeting at one point to swat an errant fly – suggested that Steve Bannon performed anatomically impossible feats upon himself?

Recall how Scaramucci himself then was destroyed a couple days later when John Kelly was brought in to right the tilting ship of state? Remember when Steve Bannon was quoted in Michael Wolff’s kiss-and-tell book, “Fire and Fury,” as saying that Donald Trump Jr. would “crack like an egg” under interrogation, and how Bannon was then pureed by Trump-tweets and defunded by the Mercer billionaires?

This is how medieval courts, or modern dictatorships, work: peons played off against each other, their weakness the ultimate insurance policy for the man at the top. If you’ve ever read Hilary Mantel’s wonderful novels chronicling Henry VIII’s court, such a saga will be instantly familiar to you.

In Trump’s tweeted attacks on Sessions and others, what we are seeing is a slide into personalized, autocratic governance.

For a while late last year, until my wife canceled our Netflix subscription, I filled my need for improbably nasty, yet compelling, interpersonal drama by watching the post-World War I gangster series, “Peaky Blinders.” These days, I just read the morning news headlines. If one is going to live in a banana republic, where business associates of the president’s son-in-law-cum-adviser can visit the White House on official government matters one day and loan the family business of said son-in-law hundreds of millions of dollars the next, I guess one might at least take some solace from the entertainment value of the whole ghastly soap opera.

Yet, I find, to my distress, that there is a limit even to that. Trump’s ongoing and venomous attacks on his own staff achieve the impossible, making vile little toadies like Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions seem almost cuddly.

There are, of course, myriad bona fide reasons to detest Sessions. His long history of making racially inflammatory remarks. His usage of the Justice Department to go after “Black Identity Extremists” rather than, say, the slew of far-right, and heavily armed groups that have been organizing, and committing acts of violence these last years.

His ludicrous arguments against the continuation of DACA. His nativist, knee-jerk, dislike of all-things-immigrant. His support for the useless and deeply destructive strategies of the war on drugs, and his willingness to intervene against the decision of voters in California and other states to create regulated marijuana markets.

This week’s announcement that the DOJ is suing California, and elected officials within the state, for the slate of laws passed last year to limit local cooperation with ICE and with Trump’s deportation machine, and Sessions’ last-minute visit Wednesday to the state capital to trumpet this lawsuit, provide yet more reasons, if any were needed, to dislike Sessions.

While in the U.S. Senate he was one of the most unlikable figures in Congress – quite an achievement given the competition these days – and as attorney general he’s done nothing to improve his demeanor. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León says his actions represent “clear retribution” for Californians standing up for immigrants and, in November 2016, voting against “the politics of resentment and bigotry.”

Yet none of these moral failings are why Sessions’ boss is beating up on him. Instead Trump tweets juvenile, exclamation point-punctuated insults at his attorney general for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, for not turning the Justice Department into a force used to annihilate political opponents, and, most recently, for not unleashing an investigative hit squad onto the FBI for its handling of FISA warrant investigations against members of the Trump campaign team.

In other words, Trump is ridiculing his attorney general for actually approximating, when it comes to the Russia investigation, the role of an attorney general, and following legal processes rather than simply acting as attack dog.

That Trump can’t spell is well known. But there is more than a spelling mistake that takes one from “prosecutor” to “persecutor.” In Trump’s understanding of justice, however, the distinction is moot.

As a result, we see this unprecedented exercise in public, almost ritualistic, humiliation that Trump is performing against Sessions. And, on a daily basis, we witness the masochistic absorption of these attacks by the beleaguered attorney general. In photos, Sessions, his eyes wide in shock, his ears jagging upward, now looks like nothing so much as a startled Koala bear who has just jammed his paw into an electric socket.

Historically, cabinet-based government has been based on the notion of “collective responsibility,” the idea that all members of a political team share responsibility for government decisions, and that, to a great degree, they rise or fall together. That’s why, both in parliamentary and presidential systems, ministers are in the main expected to fall on their sword either when an underling makes a catastrophic political error, or when they no longer retain the confidence of their political boss.

That is also why a sufficient number of political resignations often results in the entire government falling. This isn’t just the stuff of etiquette; it has evolved over centuries of political trial-and-error as one of the great distinguishing features of democratic governing structures from personalized rule.

Trump understands none of this. Instead, in his tweeted attacks on Sessions and others, what we are seeing is a slide into personalized, autocratic governance, where the leader feels unconstrained by common codes of decency, and unbound by any notion that an embarrassment to one within the government is an embarrassment to all.

Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be reached at sabramsky@sbcglobal.net.

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