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A Cracking Foundation

Ilya Shapiro

Could President Donald Trump’s bizarre attack on Attorney
General Jeff Sessions be the moment that the resistance was waiting
for? Not the travel ban, not tweetstorms about media covfefe, not
anything else that’s gone down in this six-month presidency (and
forget anything from the campaign because that was already priced
into the election). Is calling the AG “weak” and “beleaguered,” and
otherwise expressing repeated frustration and disappointment with
him, what we’ll point to as the moment when the Trump’s motley
coalition began to fray?

Donald Trump could count on a solid floor of support for (or
despite) pretty much anything in terms of policy initiatives,
political strategery, and personal behavior — but not going
after the first major politician who endorsed him, lending
conservative credentials to his campaign? It’s not implausible
that, between an erratic CEO and a chief law enforcement officer
laser-trained on “bad hombres” — whether drug-dealers or
foreigners, or both — the Make America Great Again supporters
will side with the latter.

The president’s attack on
Attorney General Sessions could undermine his support, but it won’t
end his presidency.

That’s not even mentioning the erstwhile Tea Partyers,
conservatives and others who boarded the Trump Train simply because
its conductor isn’t Hillary Clinton. Plus establishment
Republicans; despite high-profile #NeverTrump defections, issues
like judicial nominations continue allowing Trump to keep the GOP
remarkably united. To many of these folks, Sessions is “one of us”
while Trump is just an empty vessel suitable both for pursuing
certain political goals and thumbing one’s nose at the cloying
progressive elite.

Now, I’m not exactly Jeff Sessions’s biggest fan. He’s an
honorable man — unfairly smeared by the left for being an
Alabamian with a genteel drawl and the middle name Beauregard
— but his views on issues ranging from the drug war to
immigration are harmful to the nation’s best interests as I see
them. Democrats really should’ve focused on civil asset forfeiture
during his confirmation process instead of assorted racism
canards.

So I’m not taking Sessions’ side in his spat with Trump because
he’s standing up for sound public policy; I’m just saying that
impugning the competence and integrity of a solidly conservative
attorney general could be a bridge too far.

But probably not. It’s more likely that the caravan will move on
and pundits will focus on the latest celebrity the president
denigrates or next “international incident” he creates by not
shaking someone’s hand — or shaking it too long. Lately, the
master of misdirection has gotten everyone riled up about the issue
of transgender rights in the military even as his administrative
agencies are toiling away at deregulation (good!). There’s also
health care and tax policy (which is what Trump should be using his
tweety pulpit for).

No, Trump is more likely than not to survive this, possibly
after the sort of closed-door meetings where these kinds of
high-level differences are normally hashed out. That’s perhaps the
most inexplicable aspect of this whole imbroglio: if you don’t like
what your cabinet-level subordinate is doing, going public with
your dissatisfaction is counterproductive unless you’re about to
fire him — in which case it’s merely pointless.

And it’s not like the post-Hillary alternative is any better; is
any Trump voter attracted by the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Bernie
Sanders, Chuck Schumer or Elizabeth Warren? Such a gerontocratic
leadership hasn’t been seen since the late Brezhnev years —
which seems to be where the Democratic National Committee politburo
is getting its economic ideas. They accuse Trump of running
policies straight from the 1930s without realizing that their
“Better Deal” borrows more from the Socialist Party platform of
that time than FDR’s New Deal ever did.

More serious is the charge that a president’s public undermining
of an attorney general delegitimizes government institutions and
weakens the rule of law. This is a framing several reporters
offered me this week, but it’s far too early for that. The Justice
Department is far more resilient than any of these personalities.
If Sessions and deputy AG Rod Rosenstein — who helped
orchestrate FBI Director James Comey’s departure — get too
covered in mud, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand is more
than capable of righting the ship.

In short, Donald Trump’s presidency will end long before our
system of government can suffer any real damage. Along the same
lines, the shaking of his support over the Sessions affair —
the cracks in his base, if you will — is real, but it’ll take
a whole lot more to get his approval rating to the point where
Republican defections prevent governance altogether or open the
door to the political remedy of impeachment.

Ilya Shapiro
is a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute
and editor-in-chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review.