While tension between the president and his attorney general is not abnormal, the personal and political nature of President Donald Trump’s recent public denunciations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions are unprecedented, historians and former Justice Department officials say.
“There’s sort of built-in tension in that particular relationship, but it isn’t always scandalous and the battle over power isn’t always conducted in public,” said Michael Cornfield, a professor of political management at George Washington University. “In terms of the public humiliation part of it, it doesn’t really have any precedent in presidential history.”
Over the past week, Trump has repeatedly name-called and criticised Sessions on Twitter and in comments to reporters. He told The New York Times last week that he never would have chosen the Alabama senator to be attorney general had he known Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia investigation. He later tweeted that Sessions was “beleaguered” and “very weak,” criticising his decisions not to investigate Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey.
Throughout US history, a handful of presidents have had largely private feuds with their top law enforcement officials. Most notably, President Bill Clinton sparred with Attorney General Janet Reno over her decision to expand special prosecutor Ken Starr’s authority in the Monica Lewinsky matter.
“He was furious,” Robert Raben, a former assistant attorney general under Clinton, said of the former president, but Raben says Clinton was fearful of the consequences of appearing to interfere in the activities of the Justice Department.
“He knew damn well that the independent prosecutor and the attorney general have the law on their side and it’s possible that a president can bully through it, but at the end of the day, at least most of the time in this country, the rule of law wins out,” Raben said.
Charles Fried, a law professor at Harvard University and former solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan, said that Trump is entitled to an attorney general who’s not compromised by a recusal on a highly consequent issue or by having potentially lied under oath to Congress. But, Fried said, Trump’s actions are unjustifiable.
“Trump has reason to be annoyed at Sessions, no question,” he said. “But this is just unspeakable, it’s never happened.”
Fried says that Trump’s disregard for presidential norms is characteristic of lawless societies.
“Perhaps in gangster societies, or some other communities which we are unfamiliar with, a boss publicly speaks this way about his underlings, but this is astonishing and so completely beyond any norms of conduct, good behaviour, ordinary relations,” he said.
Jack Rakove, a professor of history and political science at Stanford University, said that there have been incidents in which the attorney general was directly complicit in presidential wrongdoing or did not adequately challenge the president’s authority, but Trump’s relations with Sessions, and his public criticism of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe are highly unusual.
“Like everything else with Trump, it is simply foolish to look for analogues and precedents,” Rakove said. “He is sui generis in the worst sense of the term because, as this incident again confirms, he has neither any grasp of the conventions or for that matter the substance of constitutional governance, nor any respect for the norms that allow constitutional systems to function.”
Raben says that Trump’s public humiliation tactics pose a threat to public safety because they undermine trust among those who must work together on issues of national security.
“The Department of Justice is in the business of keeping us safe,” Raben said. “It’s one thing to mess around with your [Housing and Urban Development] secretary or your commerce secretary … but people who have the ability to execute, wiretap, indict, extradite — they should be focused on keeping us safe, they should not be focused on political shenanigans.”
He argued that the consequences of “demoralising and demeaning” top officials and interfering in their work are “enormous.”
“Donald Trump is playing with fire,” he said. “When you politicize your national security people and your law enforcement people, you better pray.”
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