Why split with Sessions may pit Trump agenda against Trump himself

As the first Republican senator to endorse Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is seen as the standard-bearer of the kind of conservative nationalism that carried the billionaire to the White House.

Rebecca Droke/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP
President Trump greets the crowd as he leaves the stage after a rally Tuesday at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Ohio.

The Trump presidency has, at times, adopted the style and tone of “The Apprentice,” the reality television show that made Donald Trump a household name.

But this latest incarnation – which sees the president publicly mulling whether to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of his earliest and most ardent supporters – seems to have brought the varying, and conflicting, priorities of the Trump administration and the Republican Party to a head.

The Sessions imbroglio suggests to political observers that Mr. Trump has fealty to his and his own first, a stance that could jeopardize his own policy agenda and spark more serious conflicts – with Republican allies in Congress, and perhaps even with his own voters. For lawmakers, who have rushed to defend Mr. Sessions, there's an additional concern: a desire to protect rule of law and the independence of the US Justice Department.

Trump began openly criticizing Sessions last week when he told The New York Times that if he’d known Sessions would recuse himself from the Justice Department investigations into Russian government involvement in the 2016 election, he wouldn’t have appointed him. (That recusal ultimately led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to head an independent investigation, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.) This week the attacks have intensified, with Trump criticizing Sessions on an almost daily basis on Twitter. When asked yesterday whether Sessions will stay in his cabinet, Trump responded that “time will tell.”

Sessions, for his part, seems to have barely broken stride at the Justice Department, absorbing Trump’s attacks while simultaneously making Trump’s campaign promises of tougher drug and immigration enforcement a reality.

On Tuesday, after the president tweeted about his “beleaguered” attorney general, the former United States senator from Alabama announced that federal funding to sanctuary cities will be contingent on those cities cooperating more with federal immigration authorities. Today, Fox News reported that Sessions plans to soon announce several investigations into the internal leaks Trump has frequently bemoaned.

Sessions as standard-bearer

As the first Republican senator to endorse Trump, and on a cabinet stacked with Wall Street types, he’s seen as the standard-bearer of the kind of conservative nationalism that carried the billionaire to the White House. Since becoming attorney general, Sessions has undone or reversed many Obama-era initiatives, including restoring mandatory minimum sentences, backing off investigations into police departments, and expanding the use of civil asset forfeiture.

Indeed, Sessions arguably pushed the Trumpist agenda before Trump did. Sessions’ long-held desires for more nationalist, tough-on-crime policies saw Steve Bannon try to talk the then-senator into a 2012 White House run. Mr. Bannon found Trump soon after, and is now the president’s chief strategist.

“Sessions probably did as much as anybody to define what Trumpism means when it comes to policy – on immigration, justice, on a variety of issues,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.

“But Trump doesn’t care about Trumpism.... And if he sees his narrow self-interest conflicting with the ideological agenda, then the ideological agenda falls by the wayside,” adds Professor Pitney, author of “The Art of Political Warfare.”

The prospect of Trump sacrificing policy goals to try to protect himself and his family from the Mueller investigation, or for any other reason, may even begin to alienate his own supporters, some experts believe.

“If [Sessions] gets thrown under the bus, a lot of conservatives in the South will have their suspicions confirmed that [Trump] is the guy who says, ‘You’re fired’ on TV, not the guy who can be a real effective president,” says Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor in South Carolina.

“The South has a little under a third of the population of the country,” he adds. “That’s a solid base and you don’t want to alienate it. It seems to me like this could.”

An undercurrent of dissatisfaction may already exist within Trump’s base. Matt Drudge, founder of the right-leaning Drudge Report, is “growing impatient” with the administration, CNN reported today, because he believes Trump is “not following through on his campaign promises – the ideals that helped him win and also brought Drudge’s backing.”

However, there is always a sense that “you can’t count Trump out,” says Nadine Hubbs, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of “Rednecks, Queers and Country Music.”

“He always has a narrative, he always has a story,” she adds. “And for a lot of people [the story they’re sticking to is that] Trump means we’re getting a badly needed reset from eight years of Obama.”

Republicans in Congress, though, have rushed to defend their former colleague this week. Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, for one, said that Sessions’ dismissal “would be an amputation of [Trump’s] own immigration and rule-of-law agenda that would be a massive disappointment to the conservatives of America.”

Protecting an independent investigation

Most Republicans have focused their public comments this week on the damage firing Sessions would have on Trump’s policy agenda, but another, potentially more momentous, consequence looms.

The Sessions issue “shows the White House veering down a dark alley that Republicans don’t want to go down – firing Sessions and then firing Mueller,” says Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant in Austin, Texas. “That’s absolutely a breaking point.”

The Republican-controlled Senate would have no interest in confirming an attorney general replacement who would fire the special counsel, adds Mr. Mackowiak. And Republican congressmen have been trying to carefully warn Trump off that course.

Firing Mr. Mueller “would be a huge mistake,” Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma told The Washington Post.

“If you think you’re going to avoid [the investigations], you’re making a mistake, in my view,” he added. “You would be creating a new issue, and you would be confirming the worst suspicions of your enemies and raise doubts among your friends.”

It took a long time for candidate Trump to earn the support of establishment Republicans. With Trump now attacking one his earliest and strongest establishment supporters – and potentially alienating his base in the process – political observers believe that fragile support could be in danger of breaking.

Republicans “don’t want Trump to do something that disrupts their electoral prospects going forward,” like firing Sessions and then forcing out Mueller, says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. However, “they don’t want to undercut the president so thoroughly that his presidency is rendered moot.”

“If Republicans turn on Trump ... he is alone, and the Republican Party’s agenda is without a leader,” he adds.

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report from Washington.

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