Democrats who had hoped to witness some sign in last night’s off-year elections that the public had abandoned their antipathy toward the president’s party ahead of 2016 saw those hopes unceremoniously crushed. With only a few of exceptions limited to the Northeast and a handful of urban centers, Democratic candidates and liberal causes were again trounced at the polls.
In Virginia, Democrats had hoped to recapture control of the state Senate, but the GOP majority held. Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe’s aspirations to turn his state into a laboratory experiment in which every progressive social policy favored in Washington would be imposed on Old Dominion’s residents were dashed. In San Francisco, the city’s sheriff who had staked his career on defending his “sanctuary cities” policy, which came under fire following the murder of Kate Steinle by a Mexican illegal immigrant, lost his job. Ballot measures in Ohio and Houston, Texas, regarding legalized marijuana and transgendered bathrooms (which would allow all men dressed as women to access female-only restrooms), went down in flames. Perhaps the most fascinating and far-reaching result from last night was the election of conservative outsider candidate Matt Bevin as Kentucky’s governor.
Bevin’s victory is no modest feat. Having previously run as a spoiler insurgent in primaries against no less an establishment figure than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Bevin was the party’s first choice for nominee. His candidacy was plagued by missteps. His opponent, state Attorney General Jack Conway, was outspending the GOP candidate by a 4-to-1 margin as recently as three weeks ago, and the Republican Governors Association briefly stopped airing ads on Bevin’s behalf. Kentucky has only elected three Republicans to the governorship since the end of World War II, and Bevin’s standing in the polls had collapsed heading into Election Day. Even the GOP candidate’s own internal pollster showed him losing to Conway by a substantial four points.
In the end, it wasn’t even close. Jack Conway drew just under 44 percent of the vote to Matt Bevin’s 52.5 percent. Mirroring McConnell’s shocking 2014 victory over Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a race that was supposed to be a nail-biter was put to bed just after 8 p.m. The margin of Bevin’s victory suggests this race was never close.
There are a number of conclusions one could reach from Bevin’s victory, and many of them are valid. There will be pieces written about the Year of the Outsider, which has favored rogue candidates, the strength of disaffected conservatives’ voting coalition, and that even a flawed candidate like Bevin can emerge victorious over a groomed and disciplined establishment Democrat. Certainly, more than a handful of political journals will observe that the South is no country for Democrats anymore and that the Louisiana gubernatorial runoff in late November might not be a lost cause for Senator David Vitter — a Republican candidate markedly more flawed than Bevin. Of course, the Kentucky gubernatorial race will also be cause to note the hopelessly broken science of public opinion polling that, Canada’s parliamentary elections notwithstanding, has consistently underperformed expectations around the world. Perhaps an overlooked but nevertheless compelling takeaway from last night’s race is the increasingly homogenous nature of American politics. Even statewide races without a federal office at stake have become nationalized. For this condition, Democrats only have themselves to blame.
“All politics is local,” famously quipped the Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill. He never envisioned ObamaCare. Kentucky’s outgoing Democratic Governor Steve Besmear sought to turn the Bluegrass State into the model for implementing the Affordable Care Act. He became a favorite among progressives for bucking the state’s increasingly conservative political culture. Even on Election Day morning, Besmear declared that Democrats will run proudly on ObamaCare in 2016 and “will pound Republicans into the dust with it.” Conway did not run away from the ACA, while Bevin pledged to dismantle the state-based insurance exchange. ObamaCare might have been the most compelling of issues in this race; it swamped local concerns, it rendered Bevin’s eccentricities and missteps moot. The most intimate and personal of concerns is now a federal issue. Kentucky was supposed to serve as a model for Democratic resurgence in a traditionally red state with faint purple hues. Instead, the party must now contemplate whether it’s worth investing in a nominee to challenge Senator Rand Paul next year.
COMMENTARY’s Jonathan Tobin astutely noted that the Affordable Care Act cannot continue to exist in its present form. It is simply unsustainable, and it is preserved only by the ever tightening phalanx of liberals protecting it from any substantial revision. As predicted, premiums are skyrocketing, the rolls of the insured are not expanding as is necessary, and many of the law’s funding mechanisms are not yet and probably will never be fully implemented. ObamaCare’s namesake will leave office soon, and the law’s Praetorian Guard will follow. Democrats were always fooling themselves when they pointed to Obama’s modest job approval ratings, assured themselves that the laws of political gravity had been repealed, and contended that the outgoing two-term president would be an asset for his party on the campaign trail. Reports have been surfacing for weeks previewing how Obama will capitalize on his alleged popularity in traditionally blue states. Obama’s presence on the trail might energize dispirited liberals, but it will also make the GOP’s job of casting the election as a referendum on his tenure and the permanence of his signature legislative achievement a much easier one.
Democrats have sacrificed a lot for ObamaCare. The party that rode two anti-GOP waves to unqualified power has been decimated. In 2009, Democrats controlled 62 of 99 legislative chambers, 29 governorships, and substantial majorities in both chambers of Congress. Today, the GOP controls 70 percent of all legislative chambers and 32 governorships. Nearly half the population of the United States lives under total Republican control. In the Congress, Republican majorities in the lower chamber appear nearly impossible to oust in this decade and the project of retaking the Senate in 2016 now seems a daunting task despite the number of exposed GOP members in traditionally Democratic states. If Democrats were to lose the presidency in 2017, they would no longer be able to avoid taking stock of the full scale of the party’s decimation. Obama’s hold on the White HoOuse has masked the scope of the party’s truncation.
Democrats continue to hold out hope. They contend that Americans who head to the polls next November will be voting for any number of things; roads and bridges, improved public schools, anti-discrimination laws, voting rights, equal pay, combating the scourge of income inequality, and the forever deteriorating climate. The left claims unconvincingly that voters will rush to the polls for the national election, but they will end up voting local. But local politics isn’t what it used to be. ObamaCare saw to that. Maybe all politics is national, now. After all, Barack Obama’s Democrats wanted it that way. They sowed the wind, and they must now reap the whirlwind.
Politics Isn’t Local Anymore
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A double standard is, in fact, a standard. Just an immoral one.
Really it should come as no surprise that the scientist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins is the latest public figure to have fallen victim to a disinviting mania. After all, if a darling of the left feminist like Germaine Greer can face a campaign to silence her over her views on transgenderism or a woman of color like Ayaan Hirsi Ali can face similar attempts to have her free speech on campus canceled, why should Dawkins be spared?
The English geneticist was slated to give a talk in Berkeley, California in August on his new book Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist. Over the weekend, however, the organizers (the local community radio station KPFA) announced that they are canceling the event because, apparently, it had been discovered that Dawkins is, in fact, an Islamophobe. They explained that, while their station “emphatically supports serious free speech,” that nevertheless KPFA “does not endorse hurtful speech.”
Disappointingly, the statement from KPFA Radio doesn’t elaborate on what constitutes serious free speech. Nor does it define where the bounds of hurtful speech lie. Of course, it should go without saying that those who wish to do away with all speech that might ever be deemed hurtful to someone don’t actually take the value of free speech that seriously at all.
For what little good it will do him, Dawkins has hit back by insisting that his criticism of the “appalling misogyny and homophobia of Islam” has been made in defense of the rights of Muslims. As he put it in an open letter to the radio: “far from attacking Muslims, I understand–as perhaps you do not–that Muslims themselves are the prime victims of the oppressive cruelties of Islamism, especially Muslim women.”
Given Richard Dawkins’s pretty damning view on religious belief in general, you would have thought the event organizers might have anticipated that this arch-secularist wouldn’t have anything very complimentary to say about Islam either. Yet there is something rather troubling in KFPA’s statement on their discovery of Dawkins’s “hurtful speech.” As the radio station explained: “We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science, when we didn’t know he had offended and hurt–in his tweets and other comments on Islam, so many people.”
This leaves a question. If Dawkins’s incriminating tweets on Islam eventually came to the organizer’s attention, what about all of his other pronouncements on religion? As in, the many writings and speeches that deal with insulting all the other religions. Are KPFA Radio still yet to stumble upon Dawkins’s international best-selling The God Delusion? Imagine their sense of horror when they learn of all those hurt Jewish and Christian feelings. After all, Dawkins has had some pretty fiery things to say on the “God of the Old Testament”.
Unless, of course, the organizers already knew all about Dawkins’s past comments on the other religions, but it only became a problem for them when they found out that Dawkins had been saying similar things about Islam. Had Dawkins been silent on Islam and only derided Christianity and Judaism, would he then have still been welcome at the Berkeley event? It rather sounds like it.
Presumably, few would claim that because of his views on the Hebrew Bible, Richard Dawkins is an anti-Semite? Yet these days it seems that it is rather easier for militant secularists to fall foul of the Islamophobia charge. Dawkins has himself spoken out against the Islamic practice of serving apostates with the death penalty. Would calling such things barbaric cross the line into Islamophobia?
And what of atheists more generally, who presumably believe that without exception, all the prophets of the world’s great religions were either wildly self-deluded, or otherwise shamelessly and knowingly fabricated their various holy texts? Would making such a claim about the founder of Islam be classed as insulting the prophet? Judging by previous cases, making such a claim would steer one dangerously close to the borders of Islamophobia, or worse.
Canceling an event with an internationally renowned atheist on the grounds that he has offended the feelings of religious people is, of course, absurd.
That KPFA Radio in Berkeley feel they would like to impose something akin to blasphemy laws now is no less bizarre. Acting in defense of the hurt feelings of one religion is a far more concerning development.
Hopefully, whoever’s job it is at Berkeley to safeguard equal opportunities for religious and ethnic groups will be taking this matter in hand.
Democrats will regret treating this as a partisan issue.
Whenever a former Obama administration official’s name comes up in the process of investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russian sources, Democrats take the position that the right’s penchant for “whataboutism” neutralizes the implication of wrongdoing. The Democratic objective is to shame those who are committed to crafting a full and unbiased portrait of the events of 2016 into ignoring inconvenient facts, but the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee remains unintimidated.
This month, the committee has met with a variety of senior Obama officials behind closed doors amid its probe of the Russia affair, including former Chief-of-Staff Denis McDonough, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The committee will meet with former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power on Friday.
These interviews are apparently being conducted in the effort to get to the bottom of why incoming Trump administration officials who were inadvertently captured in intelligence intercepts of foreign targets were conspicuously “unmasked” with their names and the details of their conversations leaked to the press. Trump administration opponents call the issue a distraction, but it’s a matter of grave national importance.
Those who are disinclined to look too deeply into the issue of “unmasking” have latched onto a comment from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr like flotsam in a shipwreck. “The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes,” Burr said of the House Intelligence Committee chairman whose reckless conduct compelled him to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s conduct. “I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” he added. Fewer have, however, paid much attention to Burr’s full quote. “Clearly,” he added, “there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”
Indeed, there is a lot to explain. Only weeks into the new Trump administration, unnamed former Obama administration officials began telling reporters to expect to see details involving the surveillance of administration officials and Trump associates’ communications with their Russian counterparts. The New York Times, for example, revealed how these Obama officials left a “trail” of evidence of these contacts for investigators to uncover.
A month earlier, the Washington Post disclosed that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had privately discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in phone calls prior to the inauguration. The transcript of those intercepted communications was related to reporters, despite its highly classified nature. This revelation contradicted the transition team’s repeated denials that any such conversations between Flynn and Kislyak took place and it served as just cause for Flynn’s termination.
Flynn was a liability and should never have been placed in such a sensitive role. His dismissal was a relief, but the methods by which he was discredited established a dangerous precedent. If a private citizen swept up in routine intercepts of communications with foreign agents can be “unmasked” to achieve a political purpose, even if that purpose is defensible, it won’t be long before that precedent is applied toward more ambiguous ends.
Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to have been the target of a politically motivated intelligence reveal. As reported by, again, the Washington Post, the attorney general apparently misled U.S. officials and members of Congress with regard to the nature of his contacts with Russian officials. According to communications intercepted by “U.S. spy agencies,” Kislyak related the details of two conversations he apparently had with then-campaign advisor Sessions to his superiors in Moscow. Sessions was not personally swept up in those intercepts, but Kislyak mentioned his name and the substance of those intercepts was related to Post reporters.
The outlet stressed that it could not confirm the authenticity of the intercepts as they could in Flynn’s case, but President Trump went ahead and did that for them. “A new INTELLIGENCE LEAK from the Amazon Washington Post, this time against A.G. Jeff Sessions,” the president declared on Twitter. “These illegal leaks, like [former FBI Director James] Comey’s, must stop!”
This particular leak was widely viewed within the context of the ongoing public feud between the president and his attorney general, but it should not be so quickly dismissed. In cryptic testimony before Congress, Comey revealed that Sessions’s recusal from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia had nothing to do with Justice Department rules. He said he knew that recusal would be forthcoming, but he could not say why in an unclassified setting. Comey’s disclosure and this leak may not be unrelated.
Trump administration opponents who celebrate these unprecedented disclosures because they damage the administration are being extraordinarily parochial. This is an assault on the American social compact. The precedent being established now erodes the prohibitions on using intelligence gathering as a tool to discredit your political enemies. Democrats can bet that this practice will be deployed against them in the foreseeable future. In the process, political actors will render intelligence products suspect, weakening their utility for policymakers and, thus, making America less safe.
It is a tragedy that Democrats have not followed the lead of Senator Burr and other Republicans who are treating the issue of “unmasking” as seriously as they are the unprecedented efforts by Moscow to shape the course of American political affairs in 2016. Like the hacks of Democratic targets, this is not a partisan issue. The “unmaskers” will one day come for Democrats, and they will regret their silence in this pivotal hour.
Has Mattis gone rogue?
At the core of the Qatar dispute is the question of Qatar’s support for extremism. While many Gulf states have histories of donating to or promoting radical Islamism, many have made real reforms. Saudi Arabia, for example, became much more serious about the need to curtail support for radical groups after the Kingdom started suffering blowback with terrorists targeting foreigners living in Saudi Arabia and senior Saudi officials. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, meanwhile, has cracked down not only on the Muslim Brotherhood but has also moved to sever the life-line Egypt often provided Hamas leaders in Gaza. Qatar, however, continues to set itself above the rest in its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and other moderate Arab states are rightly confused, if not frustrated, by the muddled U.S. response so far. After all, diplomats and official from these states say, both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States have both long beseeched them to take a no-nonsense approach to extremism and to operate in a coordinated fashion against regional threats.
When they finally do, the White House flip-flops and the State Department urges compromise and negotiation. Evenhandedness is not a virtue when one side is right and the other wrong. To negotiate with regard to the acceptance of terrorist groups is, however, a very dangerous precedent. If the United States re-engaged in Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda’s bases there or began operations in Syria to counter the Islamic State, Washington would greatly resent outside powers demanding that the United States compromise with either.
In the wake of the Qatar crisis, now in its second month, Turkey set up a military base in Qatar, much to the outrage of the states seeking to pressure Qatar into compliance. That base’s closure remains a key demand among moderate Arab countries.
Now word comes that the U.S. military is planning to conduct military exercises in Qatar with the Qatari and Turkish militaries. Daily Sabah, a once independent paper which was seized by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and transferred to his son-in-law, quoted Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah as saying, “Qatar, Turkey and the U.S. regularly conduct military drills in Qatar. In the near future, a joint drill will begin by the three countries.”
Like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has sought to temper President Trump’s impetuousness on a number of foreign policy issues. While this can often be a good thing when done behind-the-scenes and in the course of a normal policy process through the National Security Council, the Pentagon conducting its own private foreign policy creates confusion and risks antagonizing allies.
Mattis already displayed a tin ear for timing when, just days after Trump sided with the moderate Arab states and called Qatar out on its funding of extremists, the Pentagon announced a multi-billion dollar arms sale to Qatar. To conduct military exercises in Qatar with Turkey suggests Mattis is choosing sides and endorsing the positions of Qatar and Turkey. Perhaps he is motivated by the desire to maintain access to the al-Udeid Air Base. If this is the case, though, he confuses the Pentagon’s preference for the status quo with broader U.S. interests. To prioritize preservation of the al-Udeid Air Base over broader interests effectively tells Doha that it need not reform its behavior and that it can use the U.S. presence as a “get out of jail free card.”
Should Qatar’s announcement of military drills be true and should Mattis go ahead with the exercises, he also risks undercutting efforts to repair the damage which the Obama administration caused with America’s traditional allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Those governments remain furious with how they believe President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry threw them under the bus.
Mattis may be more refined than Tillerson in his efforts to blunt Trump’s excesses. To conduct his own foreign policy, however, is bad in any instance. To do so in such a counterproductive way and to again betray moderate states, which have only done what successive U.S. administrations have asked them to do, may risk damaging alliances beyond the point of no return.
Anger over health care clouds the left's judgment.
Nate Silver spoke for most of the liberal blogosphere when he objected to the mainstream media’s coverage of Senator John McCain’s speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday.
McCain appeared in the Capitol just days after he had a blood clot removed from above his left eye. Amid that process, doctors discovered that a particularly malignant form of brain cancer was responsible for the clot. Despite his condition and his recovery, McCain made his way back to Washington to vote on a motion to proceed with a debate over the process of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Following his critical vote, which allowed the motion to carry only after the vice president broke a tie, McCain gave a stirring address extolling the virtues of the republic and the Senate, while also castigating his congressional colleagues over their approach to the health-care reform process.
“Among younger and less traditional reporters on Twitter,” Silver began, “a lot of people are pointing out McCain’s inconsistency in scolding McConnell’s process but nevertheless voting for the motion to proceed.” Silver added, however, that more traditional reporting outlets in print and on television were far more awed by the remarks. They didn’t seem to recognize the inconsistency that so irritated the Twitter-verse.
“Longtime readers of FiveThirtyEight know that I have a lot of beefs with the establishment media,” Silver wrote. “Moments like these, where they elevate style over substance, are a big part of why.”
The self-selected, cloistered, like-thinking population of professional cynics on political Twitter is a bad target for professional statistical analysts to critique. Moreover, this criticism is a value judgment founded not in rationality but pique.
McCain’s speech on the floor of the Senate was worthy of all the praise it received if only because not every political observer has yet abandoned basic human decency (a frailty that political Twitter discourages). McCain is by any definition an American hero who spent his life serving his country. On what may be his last speech to the nation from the upper chamber of Congress, the man deserves a hearing. Silver and his colleagues did not give him that.
McCain’s speech was mostly dedicated to the dysfunction of the body in which he serves. “When I hear the Senate referred to as the world’s greatest deliberative body, I’m not so sure we can claim that distinction with a straight face today,” he said. “Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.”
McCain implored his colleagues to ignore the professional rabble-rousers who have made a career of sowing internecine discord. “To hell with them,” he said. “They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.” If this speech started to sound like an appeal to bipartisanship, that became explicit in the following sentence.
The senator said that the virtue of the American system is found in those features that stifle one-party governance. “Top-down” “parliamentary maneuvers” that abandon the process of regular order to govern without bipartisan consent have poisoned and radicalized the country. And to repeat Democratic mistakes by shutting the other party out of the process of reforming one-sixth of the American economy would be a mistake.
“I voted for the motion to proceed to allow debate to continue and amendments to be offered,” McCain said. “I will not vote for this bill as it is today.”
Only ignorance of what a motion to proceed is or rage-induced blindness over the concept of repealing the Affordable Care Act could lead Silver or those for whom he speaks to make their claim. McCain’s vote to proceed with a debate is entirely consistent with regular order, to say nothing of his stated reverence for the process of deliberation in the Senate. His insistence that he would not support the health care bill as it exists, without major reforms (including a bipartisan buy-in and, likely, a return to the committee process), is also intellectually consistent.
I would add that it is clear that the activist left with whom Silver has lumped himself simply didn’t, or wouldn’t, hear the substance of McCain’s address. The senior senator from Arizona delivered a moving and eloquent statement of affection for the extraordinary history of the American republic. He painted a portrait of the United States as a fundamentally moral nation. He shared his love for the institutions that have made the American Constitution the world’s longest surviving governmental charter. And while he criticized American politics and the politicians who practice it, his reverence for the American system of government—to say nothing of the prosperity and security it has afforded the American people for nearly a quarter thousand years—was infectious.
The left dislikes that kind of sentimentality. They find it mawkish, at best; chauvinistic, at worst. But an American who has dedicated his life to his countrymen, often at great cost, is owed a little maudlin schmaltz, even if the popular Twitter clique does not share those sentiments. Not only was McCain’s vote consistent with his opinions, his speech was a moving tribute to the country he loves. It’s a shame, but a telling one, that the left didn’t hear any of it.
Donald Trump sees disloyalty even in his closest supporters.
In a performance that would have shocked sensibilities if they weren’t already flogged to the point of numbness, President Trump delivered a nostalgic, campaign-style stem-winder on Monday to a troop of boy scouts. The commander-in-chief meandered between crippling self-pity and gauche triumphalism; he moaned about his treatment by the “fake media,” praised himself for the scale of his Electoral College victory, and pondered aloud whether to dub the nation’s capital a “cesspool” or a “sewer.” Most illuminating in this manic display was an exposition on the virtues of fealty. “We could use some more loyalty; I will tell you that,” the president mused. These days, Trump seems fixated on treachery—among Republicans in Congress, among his Cabinet officials, and among his subordinates in the administration. His obsession may yet prove his undoing.
Donald Trump wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign. That has become obvious, and not just because Trump’s new communications director (whose portfolio seems to consist of inflating the president’s ego in friendly media venues and purging the administration of experienced political professionals) admitted as much. Trump told the New York Times that Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from any investigation into the campaign was “very unfair” to him personally. The president has criticized his “beleaguered” attorney general for taking a “weak” position on prosecuting Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, and investigating the Ukrainian government’s efforts to support the Clinton campaign.
This is all post hoc. Trump expressed no interest in re-litigating the charges against Hillary Clinton (which his former FBI director dismissed as beyond the scope of prosecution) in November of last year. The tenor of Trump’s agitation with his attorney general is proportional to the tempo of new revelations regarding the special counsel investigation into the president’s campaign, many of which were first revealed to the public cryptically in Trump’s own public pronouncements. As a self-described campaign operative, Sessions was obliged to recuse himself from any investigation into the campaign’s activities, and he did so in February. The move reportedly irritated Trump at the time, but his outrage has boiled over only as the probe has begun to ensnare his family.
There is no small amount of absurdity in the fact that Jeff Sessions is perhaps the most loyal of Trump’s associates in Washington. His every action has been designed to shield Trump from the consequences of his own recklessness. When Donald Trump was still regarded by the majority of GOP officeholders as a liability and a usurper, Sessions was the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse the rogue candidate. He was a stalwart campaign-trail surrogate and turned in a workmanlike performance at the Justice Department. When Trump fired his FBI director, Sessions refused to testify before Congress as to the nature of pertinent conversations between the president and his Cabinet. When privilege did not protect those conversations, Sessions insisted that he had simply forgotten many of the particulars.
Perhaps more than most, Sessions helped to make Donald Trump the president. As attorney general, the former senator has been effective in overseeing an increasingly restless Justice Department populated by people who chafe amid Trump’s regular attacks on them and their superiors. Even now, by declining to be goaded into resignation, Sessions is protecting the president. Trump seems to imagine that Session’s removal would clear the way for a new attorney general, who would be free to dismiss Robert Mueller and dissolve the special counsel’s office at will. But that wouldn’t happen. Trump would merely ignite a political firestorm and be faced with the task of finding another person to serve as a punching bag atop his least favorite agency.
This is all to say nothing of the fact that such a masochistic individual would have to be confirmed by Republicans in the Senate. In that process, lawmakers would surely seek assurances that the new attorney general would not touch the special counsel’s office. The Republican-led Congress is already conducting four of their own investigations into Trump’s campaign. The president’s extraordinary relationship with Russia has forced the GOP-led legislature to prepare a sanctions bill that robs the presidency of its freedom to administer those injunctions.
This all might seem like hostility, but it’s precisely the opposite; it’s guidance of a kind that a political novice with self-destructive impulses sorely needs. But this sort of protection, too, has led the president to wallow in melancholy and a sense of betrayal. “It’s very sad that Republicans do very little to protect their president,” he wrote of the incoming sanctions bill.
The kind of paranoia on display in Trump’s attacks on his most loyal partners in government is not unfamiliar. It is the kind that mistakes a desire for self-preservation—an instinct found in every successful political actor—as weakness and perfidy. Trump is fortunate enough to have surrounded himself with people devoted enough to him to know when his requests are inappropriate or when the president is better served by preserving the appearance of their independence. The fact that Trump finds even that kind of pantomimed insubordination intolerable is disturbing. This is a man who would sacrifice competence for sycophancy. In a less robust system of constitutional laws, they are the impulses of a leader who would corrupt the very government he manages. They still might.
In his attacks on Sessions—an early Trump supporter, a dedicated public servant, and a man with more goodwill among Republicans on Capitol Hill than the president may ever possess—Trump might have gone too far. Even Trump surrogates who are loath to criticize the president when he most deserves it are no longer being shy. Perhaps they know the bell will toll for them one day, or maybe they sense the danger of the moment. If past behavior is a guide, these defections won’t compel Trump to rethink his conduct. In fact, they might only reinforce in Trump the notion that he is surrounded by traitors.