The situation is stranger still because, as I wrote yesterday, Trump has the power to fire Sessions whenever he likes. Attorneys general serve at the pleasure of the president. (Johnson was constrained by an act of Congress, since thrown out, that barred the sacking of secretaries.) Trump’s frustration with Sessions about the recusal is not new, and in early June, after news reports revealed his private anger, Sessions reportedly offered to resign. But Trump refused.
Since then, however, the situation has worsened. The legal and political jeopardy facing Trump and his family has increased, including new revelations about campaign contacts with Russia, most notably the June 9, 2016, meeting in which Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort sat down with a Russian lawyer, after being promised dirt on the Hillary Clinton campaign. Trump, rightly sensing the danger to his presidency, has become more agitated, and has taken to venting his anger at Sessions publicly. The Associated Press reports that Trump has spoken to aides about the prospect of firing the attorney general.
Yet so far, Trump has preferred to bash him publicly instead. The reasons for this are obscure. Maggie Haberman reports that two sources suggested he’s tormenting Sessions simply because he can, like a cat with a mouse. Despite being famous for the catchphrase “you’re fired,” Trump has shown a notable unwillingness to actually dismiss aides. Meanwhile, he seems at many times to be testing their tolerance for public humiliation.
During the campaign, it took an intervention from his children to push out troubled campaign manager Corey Lewandowski; and rather than fire Manafort, Trump layered him, leaving Manafort to resign on his own. Trump was reluctant to fire National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, even after learning he lied to Congress. Trump ridiculed Press Secretary Sean Spicer and even excluded the devout Catholic from a much-desired meeting with the pope, but never fired him, and it took Spicer’s own layering by Anthony Scaramucci to drive him to resign. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has been rumored to be on the bubble more or less since he was hired. Chief strategist Steve Bannon had to suffer a humiliating exile—labeled just “a guy who works for me”—before re-emerging.
Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, who has shown a remarkable willingness to speak about private conversations with the president during his first days on the job, told Hugh Hewitt Tuesday morning that he thinks Trump wants Sessions to resign. Perhaps, like the rumored dismissals of Priebus, Bannon, and Spicer, this one will never come to pass. But then again, Trump never went after any of them as publicly and bitterly as he has Sessions.
Trump’s goal in pushing Sessions out would not simply be personal vengeance. As The Washington Post reports, the thinking seems to be that Trump could appoint a new attorney general—either as a permanent nominee, or as a recess appointee—who could then fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Currently, that authority rests with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is acting attorney general on Russia matters and who appointed Mueller. It’s believed that Rosenstein would refuse to fire Mueller if Trump directed him to do so. Although Rosenstein is himself a Trump appointee, the president purported to know nothing about him and called the Bethesda Republican a Baltimore Democrat during the same Times interview in which he went after Sessions. Perhaps Trump already asked Sessions to fire either Rosenstein or Mueller, and Sessions refused.