BEFORE DONALD TRUMP became president, Democrats would have struggled to name a Republican they disliked more than Jeff Sessions. The then senator from Alabama is an ultra-restrictionist on immigration and opposes changes to sentencing that would lock fewer people up. As Mr Trump’s attorney-general, he championed separating migrant children from their parents, among other terrible ideas. Yet his removal on November 7th, after the president demanded his resignation, has caused a rare spasm of bipartisan concern.
That is because Mr Sessions, despite his flaws, believes in the rule of law. He was also willing to defy Mr Trump to defend it. His decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s probe into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian election-hackers was forced upon him by his own lying about Russian contacts. But after Mr Trump turned on Mr Sessions, apparently in fear of the investigation under Robert Mueller that his recusal unleashed, he stood firm.
Mr Trump calls Mr Mueller’s investigation, which has so far indicted or secured convictions against four members of his campaign team and 26 Russians, a “witch-hunt”. He blames it on Mr Sessions, and often demanded he close it down. He also urged him to launch diversionary probes into his political rivals, including Hillary Clinton. Mr Sessions refused to be “improperly influenced by political considerations.” That was more spine than other senior Republicans have shown Mr Trump.
The charitable view of his removal—the day after the mid-terms, apparently because Mr Trump feared it might have cost him votes—is that the president wanted a more pliant attorney-general. He simply refuses to accept that, as the boss of law enforcement agencies such as the FBI that operate at a remove from the executive, the attorney-general is more than the president’s legal fixer. His model for the job, according to a former Trump confidant, is Roy Cohn, the late mob lawyer who advised him in his early real-estate days. His appointee to replace Mr Sessions on an acting basis, Matt Whitaker, the former attorney-general’s chief of staff, should please him.
He is a highly partisan Republican who has insisted that judges take a “biblical view of justice”. His own view appears mainly to track Mr Trump’s. Mr Whitaker has attacked the FBI for failing to indict Mrs Clinton. He has been a fierce public critic of Mr Mueller’s investigation, which he seems to think is a “lynch mob”. He has said, falsely, that the former FBI director has no mandate to investigate Mr Trump’s business interests—something the president had described, with no authority, as a “red line”. Mr Whitaker has also suggested the investigation could be killed by cutting its budget. He is now in charge of it.
A darker view of Mr Sessions’ removal is that it is a means of bringing about what Mr Trump and Mr Whitaker both want, the end of the Mueller investigation. This would represent by far the biggest rule-of-law crisis of Mr Trump’s presidency—perhaps since Watergate. A sitting president would have shut down a counter-espionage investigation into a hostile state’s attack, because it threatened to implicate himself or his children. Would he get away with it?
The incoming Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives were swift to denounce Mr Sessions’ removal. Nancy Pelosi, the likely next Speaker, called it “another blatant attempt” by Mr Trump to end the Mueller probe. Democratic-led committees would investigate him if he did. But there is a limit to what they could do without fulsome backup from Republicans, and there is little sign of that.
Republican Senate leaders have refused to vote on a bill to protect Mr Mueller. Only a few expressed concern at Mr Sessions’ removal. Last year Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, once known as a principled conservative, said there would be “holy hell to pay” if Mr Trump sacked his former Senate colleague. Shortly after he in effect did so, Mr Graham tweeted that he looked “forward to working with President [Trump] to find a confirmable, worthy successor so that we can start a new chapter at the Department of Justice.”