Jeff Sessions was unfit to serve as attorney general of the United States. He had lied about his civil-rights record, claiming that he’d desegregated schools in Alabama when he hadn’t, as he later admitted under oath. He and his surrogates misled the public by insisting that he had begun his political life campaigning against the segregationist Lurleen Wallace, without mentioning that her GOP opponent was also a segregationist. He exaggerated his role in the prosecution of the Ku Klux Klansmen who lynched Michael Donald. He praised the racist 1924 immigration law that targeted nonwhites, Eastern and Southern Europeans, and Jews. He was rejected for a federal judgeship for allegedly calling a black attorney a “boy” and a civil-rights attorney a “race traitor.” On every crucial question of civil rights in the past 40 years, Sessions has been on the wrong side.
He also misled the Senate, under oath, about his contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, then lied about having lied. If his record opposing basic constitutional rights for marginalized groups were not disqualifying, his rank dishonesty should have been.
As attorney general, Sessions rolled back civil-rights enforcement, failing to file even a single voting-rights case in a country where the Republican Party has settled on disenfranchisement of rival constituencies as a tactic for winning elections. He failed in his duty to prevent the president from attempting to influence the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and then aided the president in presenting a patently false justification for firing former FBI Director James Comey over that investigation. In virtually every consequential way, Sessions should go down in history as one of the worst attorney generals ever to hold the office.
Yet in one important sense, Sessions’s forced departure is alarming. Sessions, for all his flaws, envisioned the position of attorney general as an office that should resist political pressure from the White House, and one whose ultimate loyalty is to the Constitution. It was that view that caused Sessions, under pressure, to agree to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. This runs contrary to the central tenet of Trumpism, which holds that the highest loyalty is not to the public, the nation, or the Constitution, but to Donald Trump. The president was enraged that Sessions’s recusal meant that he could not control the investigation himself. He will not make that mistake with his next choice of attorney general.
Trump’s losses in the midterms will not make him more cautious; they will only make him more dangerous. Trump’s only true ideological commitment is to his racially exclusive vision of American citizenship. His authoritarianism is more instinctive than ideological, closely tied to his desire to enrich himself and his allies without facing legal consequences. If the only way the president can save his own skin or that of others implicated in his corruption is to violate the rule of law, then he has no compunctions about doing so. With Democrats in charge of the House, the president is no doubt confident that he can blatantly break the law and still convince his supporters, sealed in an impenetrable bubble of pro-Trump propaganda, that he did no such thing. Protecting the rule of law will fall to a Republican majority in the Senate whose willingness to do so is deeply in question.
Indeed, the president said as much during his press conference Wednesday morning, warning that if House Democrats looked into this campaign or his finances, he would retaliate. “They can look at us, we can look at them, and it will go back and forth, and it will probably be very good for me politically,” Trump said. “I can see it being extremely good politically, because I think I am better at that game than they are, actually.”
The racial element of Trumpism is an essential one, but so is this: Trump believes that he and his friends and allies are above the law. There is no act they could commit that would warrant prosecution or sanction. At the same time, there is no act committed by his critics or rivals that could not be subject to prosecution, should he so choose. It is not simply that the president does not believe in the rule of law. It is that he believes the law is a shield that protects him, and a sword that can be used to impale his enemies. Nothing has made this clearer than his constant demands for prosecution of his critics, and his decision to issue federal pardons to men like Dinesh D’Souza and Joe Arpaio, whose violations of the law he regards as trivial because they are pro-Trump sycophants.
This is not how things are supposed to work in a democracy, and certainly not in the United States. But with Sessions gone, Trump will be looking for a replacement who sees the law the way he does: as a set of rules that applies to his enemies but not to himself or the charmed circle that surrounds him. The danger to American democracy did not subside with House Republicans’ defeat in the midterms. It has only grown.