We begin with Donald Trump’s demented stemwinder before the Boy Scout Jamboree on Monday, which no doubt had the assembled Scouts fingering the corkscrews on their Swiss Army Knives and wishing they were older. The speech was one long exhibit of Trump’s accomplishments, from his days as a real estate tycoon in New York City to his Electoral College win. He even began reciting the Scout Law, and one can surmise as to how it would have gone if he’d taken the time to finish it his way: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, beautiful, yuge, bigly, courteous, kind—and I know kind, okay? Believe me.”
The Boy Scouts is one of the few private organizations left in America with its own salute, so it takes some doing to come off as uniquely autocratic in that environment. But Trump managed it. One flabbergasted former CIA chief likened the Jamboree address afterwards to a “third-world authoritarian’s youth rally.”
Why? Why can our boy not help himself even in front of the Scouts? The reason is that for Trump, the political is always personal. Everything—speeches, campaign events, bill signings, political hires, Obamacare—becomes a whiteboard on which to project a kaleidoscopic image of his carrot-topped visage, and it’s this cult of self that constitutes his true politics, more than conservatism or even nationalism.
That brings us to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump has turned on with a vengeance. Sessions has been dodging near-constant sniping from Trump since last week, with the latest shot coming on Twitter this morning as Trump wondered why Sessions hadn’t sacked his acting FBI director. Sessions has yet to respond but the assumption is that he can’t last long in a Justice Department where Trump keeps electrifying the floor. He hasn’t resigned yet though, perhaps hell-bent on forcing Trump to fire him personally, the least he thinks he’s owed after over a year of self-abasing support.
Every day you have to wake up and pinch yourself, lest it become de-italicized in your mind that a president has launched a pressure campaign against his own attorney general for (among other things) not prosecuting his former political opponent. That isn’t normal and can’t become so. But the most important words there are “attorney general”—because Trump doesn’t seem to view Sessions as his attorney general at all.
The AG is part of the executive branch and the cabinet. But he is also separated from both, since among his responsibilities are ensuring the president doesn’t overstep the law. The boundaries of this semi-autonomy have always been nebulous—witness the resignation of Nixon’s attorney general after being asked to fire the special prosecutor or the role of James Comey in foiling Dick Cheney’s desired reauthorization of surveillance authority. But it’s still generally accepted that the executive branch isn’t entirely unitary, that the attorney general does exercise some check on the president’s power.
That complex role has been typically flattened by Trump who then proceeded to project onto it his own needs. He views his attorney general more as his personal lawyer, slipping him into the shoes that Michael Cohen filled back in New York. Under that view, Sessions is obligated to defend his boss under any circumstances; his raison d’être is to shield Trump from legal troubles so the president can go about his business. Yet on the Russia scandal, the most nettlesome legal scourge that Trump has ever faced, Sessions has been MIA, having recused himself and left his deputy Rod Rosenstein to appoint the vexatious special counsel Robert Mueller. In Trump’s addled mind, this is a cardinal act of disloyalty, a dereliction of duty by an ingrate.
As I’ve pointed out before, it’s Mueller who’s Trump’s real target here, not Sessions, and it’s quite possible we could be staring at another Saturday Night Massacre before the summer is up. But in the meantime, persecuting Sessions will do just fine. This is the extreme terminus of Bush-era demands that the executive branch be “run like a business,” with total subordination demanded by an overbearing CEO. It’s an appealing idea as far as efficiency goes, but in our age of massive executive sprawl and congressional fecklessness, it’s inadequate. Someone needs to apply the law to the bureaucracy, someone within.
As for Sessions, don’t expend too much sympathy. Taking someone’s stuff without criminally charging them isn’t in line with the Scout Law either.