Trump, Sessions and America’s looming constitutional crisis

The deeper that special counsel Robert Mueller digs, the more the president panics

by: Edward Luce


US President Donald Trump is pondering whether to dismiss his attorney-general Jeffrey Sessions, pictured left © Reuters


The guns of August are cocked and ready. Donald Trump is wondering aloud whether to fire his attorney-general, Jeffrey Sessions. Coming from the top, such speculation can only end in Mr Sessions’ departure. The US president is also musing about who will rid him of the troublesome special counsel, Robert Mueller. That, too, must eventually end in Mr Mueller’s exit. Both are a question of timing. My hunch is August. But it could be months away. Or tomorrow.

The point is that Mr Trump will do what he must to block the investigation. His latest escalation was triggered by Mr Mueller’s decision to broaden his probe to include the Trump Organisation’s financial dealings with Russia. Washington gossips have speculated that Vladimir Putin possesses lurid tapes of Mr Trump. The idea of such “kompromat” might ignite our prurience. But it always seemed far-fetched. In contrast, there is ample cause to scrutinise Mr Trump’s history of business dealings with Russian counterparts.

The further Mr Mueller progresses, the more Mr Trump panics. His reactions betray his motives. No reasonable observer could conclude that Mr Trump is willing to open his books. Having refused to release his tax returns, he risks a constitutional crisis to stop US law enforcement officers from looking into his business dealings. The two are obviously connected. Sooner or later, serious investigators end up following the money. Mr Mueller is nothing if not thorough. Mr Trump is nothing if not ruthless.

It can only result in a collision. The question is whether the US republic can walk away unscathed. Comparisons with Watergate are often facile. But Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973 is too pressing a parallel to ignore. Elliot Richardson, his attorney-general, resigned after he had refused to dismiss the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Then the deputy attorney-general, William Ruckelshaus, stepped down for the same reason. Only on the third try could Nixon find an official pliable enough to do his bidding. That man was Robert Bork.

Mr Trump faces the same problem. Having recused himself from anything related to the Russia investigations, Mr Sessions does not have the authority to fire Mr Mueller. But his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, is unlikely to do so either. It was he who appointed Mr Mueller after having fired James Comey, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in May. Mr Trump is thus busy smearing both Mr Sessions and Mr Rosenstein. He is preparing his base for the purge to come. Say what you like about Mr Trump, but he is easier to read than a traffic light.

It is at this point a constitutional crisis would erupt. America’s founding fathers created a system based on laws, not men. But it is down to people to uphold the system. In theory, there is nothing stopping Mr Trump from doing whatever he likes. Most constitutional lawyers say you cannot indict a sitting president — even if he has repeatedly obstructed justice. If Mr Mueller were sacked, in other words, no court would reinstate him. The same applies to Mr Sessions, and as far down the chain as Mr Trump cared to go.

The US republic’s ultimate safety net is public opinion. So far most Americans are not inflamed by the Russia investigations. It is hard to blame them. People in Washington are obsessed by the day-by-day dramatic twists. But most ordinary Americans lack the time to absorb the endless waves of detail. Who cares if Mr Sessions held undeclared meetings with the Russian ambassador during the campaign? Politics is a dirty game and the people who throw mud are usually covered in it themselves.

The other safety net is impeachment. Unless public opinion turns sharply against Mr Trump, a Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to act. Nixon had no place to hide after it was revealed he had taped his Oval Office conversations. The Saturday Night Massacre was his last-ditch attempt to stop the tapes from falling into public hands. It was only after they were released that a critical number of Republicans turned against Nixon. That was during a far less partisan era than today.

Ironically, one thing protecting Mr Sessions is that he is more Trumpian than Mr Trump. In the past few months he has been busy putting “America First” into practice by stepping up deportations of illegal immigrants. This has won him friends in outlets such as Breitbart News. That is why Mr Trump’s attacks focus on Mr Sessions’ failure to prosecute Hillary Clinton. Mr Trump needs the base to demand Mr Sessions’ head because of his supposed softness towards “crooked Hillary”. As I say, you can read Mr Trump through a blindfold.

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