Jeff Sessions is still President Trump’s attorney general. But does Trump have confidence in him? No one in the White House is willing to say.
Sessions was an early Trump backer and, for a long time, one of Trump’s most trusted advisers.
But according to reports that have surfaced over the past few days, Trump has been mad at Sessions ever since the attorney general decided, in February, to recuse himself from the federal investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. At some point, according to a report in the Washington Post, the tension was so bad that Sessions offered to resign; Trump didn’t accept.
All the behind-the-scenes drama has come out belatedly, after the president brought his dissatisfaction with Sessions out into the open himself on Monday. In a series of tweets, Trump blamed the Department of Justice for “watering down” his travel ban.
At a press conference Tuesday, Sean Spicer refused to answer a question about whether Trump still had confidence in Sessions. The White House didn’t reply to follow-ups Tuesday night. In Washington, traditionally, those are signs that someone is in very big trouble.
Trump’s communications team has a good reason not to answer any questions along these lines: The last time a White House staffer attested to reporters that Trump had full confidence in a top official, the staffer was senior counselor Kellyanne Conway and the official was National Security Adviser Mike Flynn — and Flynn proceeded to get fired hours after she said it.
The president is mercurial, and the only person who can really know when Trump has confidence in someone is Trump.
But Trump isn’t rushing to profess his confidence in Sessions either:
Trump declines to respond when reporters ask if he still has confidence in Sessions. “Thank you,” he mouths, heading to helicopter.— Peter Baker (@peterbakernyt) June 7, 2017
Politicians, even Trump, often ignore press questions in these situations. But sometimes they don’t. Trump had an opportunity to make sure everyone knew he had full confidence in his attorney general; he didn’t take it.
Donald Trump enjoys making people grovel
Usually, when so many leaks come out about the president being upset with a top official, and when the White House refuses to say the president retains confidence in that official, it’s a sign the official is going to get fired.
But there are good reasons to be skeptical that the pattern holds in the Trump White House.
For one thing, leaks about conflicts between the president and members of his inner circle (or between one member of the inner circle and another) are simply how this White House rolls. It’s an ongoing soap opera, with regular installments documenting the recriminations, alliances, and fallings out.
Thanks to the leaks, it’s become very clear to the American public that the president often runs hot and cold on people — even people in his inner circle. “Trump is mad at X and blames him for his problems” stories have been written for pretty much any X in the White House important enough to matter (and not within the Trump family).
With the possible exception of communications director Mike Dubke, though, Trump hasn’t actually fired anyone because he was upset with them. The only person he fired — Flynn — was someone he actually liked but felt political pressure to fire (and he now, according to reports, regrets buckling to that pressure).
Even Spicer has stuck around, and his job has reportedly been on the rocks since Trump’s first week as president. He’s suffered some high-profile snubs, and isn’t doing as many of the White House’s on-camera briefings anymore, but the “You’re fired!” president hasn’t fired him yet.
As for Sessions, remember that he (reportedly) offered to resign. Trump didn’t take the opportunity to get rid of him.
It’s almost as if Trump’s anger at someone, even when he’s willing to express it in public, isn’t a permanent or irreversible situation. It’s almost as if Trump — who revels in shows of dominance — makes a practice of forcing each adviser to feel his wrath and grovel before him in turn.
It’s a tawdry little drama, and it pulls attention from the millions of lives, in America and around the world, shaped by the policies that stem from decisions Trump and Sessions (and the rest of Trump’s team) make. But the unsettling reality is that the drama shapes the policy. The decisions Trump makes are largely dependent on who has his ear at any given time. Who he likes best today is far more important than it ought, by any rights, to be.