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Is Jeff Sessions Long For Trump’s World?

In this week’s politics chat, we ponder President Trump’s criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): I’m back from vacation! And I just want all of you to know that I don’t agree with the many, many people who emailed me and wrote to me on Twitter saying that the chats were wooden and horrible without me … you all did great!

Today’s topic: President Trump’s continued war on Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): So have you all heard of a jam session before? This is a Sessions session.

micah: Oh god.

natesilver: 🎶 🎸

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): None of these jokes are funny.

micah: Trump’s tweets this morning marked another day of attacks on Sessions. It’s really quite crazy, so I want to just start with your initial reactions — just as longtime political observers.

natesilver: It’s totally fucking nuts.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): My initial reaction is how quickly Trump can turn on even one of his earliest supporters. Moreover, Trump seems obsessed, and I don’t understand how Sessions doesn’t quit or is fired. Then again, it’s the Trump White House!

clare.malone: I keep on thinking of the words that George W. Bush reportedly used about Trump’s Inauguration Day: “That was some weird shit.” That pretty much applies to 60 percent of what comes from Trump these days.

natesilver: I don’t see the upside for Trump in firing Sessions, other than to demonstrate Trump’s dominance. If he were to fire special counsel Robert Mueller — well, that’s super high risk, but arguably also high reward, if it wound up quashing or delaying the Russia/obstruction of justice investigation. It’d be a dumb risk to undertake, but it would make a certain amount of sense.

But Sessions? He’s one of the Trumpiest members of the Cabinet. And firing him would piss off a lot of Trump’s allies.

clare.malone: Well, these noises from Trump are already angering a lot of conservative forces. You’ve got Breitbart and Newt Gingrich coming to defend Sessions.

natesilver: And Tucker Carlson!

micah: So how risky would firing Sessions be? And what could Trump gain from it?

clare.malone: He could put a stoogier stooge in the Justice Department? Which would be helpful re: Mueller.

natesilver: Right, someone who would either fire Mueller or investigate Hillary Clinton, presumably. But would the Senate approve such a nominee? I argued in my piece today … maybe not.

clare.malone: Well, as we all know from the movie, RUDY’s tend to overcome long odds. (Rudy Giuliani has been reported as a possible choice to replace Sessions.)

harry: Giuliani was once played by James Woods.

natesilver: Rand Paul is opposed to Rudy, so the GOP would start with 51 votes:

There was also some weirdness going on with Giuliani apparently having advanced knowledge of some of the FBI-related bombshells during the campaign last year.

micah: OK, but while I’m fairly convinced that firing Mueller might spark a revolt among Republicans, I’m less sure that firing Sessions would.

natesilver: Sessions is a pretty popular guy among Republicans, in part because he’s an ex-senator.

harry: There are two different groups here, Micah.

I think firing Mueller might spark a revolt from mainstream Republicans, but not necessarily from the Breitbart wing, while firing Sessions may lead to many parts of the party being upset.

micah: Yeah, that’s an important distinction. I’m talking more about Congress.

clare.malone: Well, in part because it’s sort of without cause. Sessions basically HAD to recuse himself. Also, is Trump essentially the only one in his inner circle that wants Sessions gone? I mean, Sessions and chief strategist Steve Bannon are tight. I guess Jared Kushner might not be keen on him?

micah: It’s hard to say. His inner circle is becoming much more skewed toward “let Trump be Trump” people.

clare.malone: It just seems so off to me, like Trump is going a little rogue and he’s painted himself into a corner.

natesilver: I’m looking forward to when Bannon inevitably is fired after some Trump temper tantrum, runs back to Breitbart and then starts calling Trump a cuck.

micah: But let’s get back to Republican reaction for a moment, especially in Congress. (Which is really what matters most.) Sessions has advanced Trump’s nationalist agenda, particularly on immigration, probably more than anyone else. But in terms of violating norms, firing Sessions might be seen as less egregious than firing Mueller. House Speaker Paul Ryan was asked about it on Tuesday and essentially said that it’s up to Trump.

So it could prompt a firestorm on Breitbart but less so in the Senate and House?

natesilver: So there are basically two scenarios:

  1. Trump fires Sessions and then attempts to replace him with a “normal” attorney general. Congress probably confirms the new AG, but along the way, Trump has burned some credibility with people whose support he needs.
  2. Trump fires Sessions and then attempts to replace him with a hack. Now, you’ve invited a big confrontation.

clare.malone: Is Rudy No. 2? Who is a normal choice?

natesilver: Far be it from me to imply that the former mayor of New York City is a political hack!

clare.malone: Hey, remember when Giuliani tried to ban art?

micah: I actually don’t remember that.

clare.malone: Here.

harry: It was a big thing, Micah.

natesilver: Trump was reportedly considering Kris Kobach before he picked Sessions.

micah: Chris Christie!

harry: By the way, notice how New York City metropolitan area Trump’s advisers and White House staff have become.

natesilver: Ted Cruz has been floated. Pam Bondi.

clare.malone: There is a good point here in that Trump is sort of needlessly burning political capital on this.

harry: I think No. 1 is not a big deal, unless that person then fires Mueller. Then that becomes a big deal.

micah: Wait a second … isn’t No. 1 still a big deal? He needs the nationalist wing of the GOP firmly in his corner, no?

natesilver: I think Harry’s wrong about that. How does Trump go from high-30 approval ratings to the low 30s? Pissing off his friends in the conservative media is a pretty good way to do that.

clare.malone: Fox News’s reaction is key, not just Breitbart’s. They’re more influential, ultimately.

harry: I meant a big deal in terms of how Congress would view him. Canning Sessions hurts him tremendously with the right-wing media.

micah: I buy that more.

natesilver: I’m also not sure that Congress would take it lying down, either. Presidents’ firing their Cabinet has historically been a big deal. That’s what got Andrew Johnson impeached, basically.

micah: Nate thinks more highly of the GOP majority in Congress than other people here. (Me.)

clare.malone: Yeah, I noticed!

Is this where we find out who is an inherent optimist and who is an inherent pessimist?

natesilver: I think there’s a risk of a bandwagon effect among the GOP if Trump crosses certain lines.

micah: I think that’s right, but …

Short of a certain line — and I think that line is somewhere beyond firing Sessions but short of firing Mueller — the Republican majority in Congress will make a lot of noise but there won’t be all-out hostility.

harry: Clare and Micah are right. I’m surprised at how much faith Nate has in Congress.

micah: It’s really a question of how quickly GOP members snap back to supporting Trump as a default. I think they would snap back pretty quickly if Trump fired Sessions.

natesilver: I’m the only one looking at the evidence on how Congress has behaved on Russia so far! The Senate intelligence committee’s investigation is pretty serious. Congress approved the Russia sanctions bill by overwhelming majorities. Those are pretty serious steps just six months into a president’s term.

Where Congress has acted in a very partisan way, it’s been on stuff like health care that are big Republican priorities, rather than big Trump priorities.

micah: Here’s my problem with your argument, Nate. It’s circular. You’re saying that the GOP members of Congress have done a lot considering that it’s only six months into Trump’s term and that breaking with a president of your party is a big step. But that presupposes a world where parties can only gradually ramp up their opposition to their president.

Like, who says that the fact that it’s early in Trump’s term should matter?

natesilver: I’m saying — in a world where the GOP were taking very serious steps against Trump 18 months or two years or four years into his term, the six-month mark would probably look a lot like this.

Like, if a couple is fighting all the time on their honeymoon, that doesn’t predict a successful marriage four years out, even if the fights themselves are fairly trivial.

micah: OK, sure. But in a world where the GOP were taking very serious steps against Trump eight months into his term, the six-month mark would probably not look a lot like this.

clare.malone: I find this line of argument …

I dunno …

natesilver: But it’d be totally insane for the GOP to like openly support impeachment now!

micah: Who said anything about impeachment?

(We gotta move on.)

natesilver: It’s all about impeachment, Micah.

Everything else is just a prelude to impeachment.

All roads lead to impeachment.

clare.malone: Did you know when I was little and the Bill Clinton stuff was happening, I really thought it had to do with the fruit?


micah: That’s amazing.

clare.malone: I’m a longtime, sophisticated political observer.

micah: OK, so this isn’t really our bailiwick, but to wrap here, I want to talk a bit about what it means that Trump is going after Sessions so explicitly. Forget the political fallout for a second. Lots of people are remarking on how abnormal/crazy it is for a president to wage a campaign against his own attorney general, but why is it bad?

harry: I just don’t remember anything like it.

clare.malone: Is it necessarily bad?

Yes. It’s destabilizing. If you’re going to handle your business, handle it in private.

micah: Bad in that it undermines the rule of law? Or bad in that it destabilizes the government, as Clare said?

Or bad in some other way?

clare.malone: I don’t know that it destabilizes the government.

natesilver: I mean, to have the president use the Justice Department in such an overtly political way is bad, sure.

clare.malone: It makes Trump look more and more erratic, I guess.

Is that governmentally destabilizing? Maybe …

harry: Sessions, in recusing himself, was acting in accordance with the law. Trump being so vocal about wishing that Sessions had acted differently isn’t a good look. I’d also point out that other Cabinet members might now be asking, “What next?”

micah: So, for example, Sessions is reportedly going to announce criminal investigations of leaks. Do we now have to wonder whether he’s doing that simply to appease the president?

natesilver: Like I said, it’s fucking nuts. Even with the firing of FBI Director James Comey — it was a dumb move, but you could sort of see the twisted logic behind it (“Democrats will love this because they hate Comey”), like a poker player going all-in on a bluff that’s obvious to everyone but him. The Sessions thing just seems purely personally vindictive, however.

I guess Micah has a small point in that if Sessions now starts to do very aggressive stuff to appease Trump, there’s some small upside for Trump.

I just don’t know if that ends well for either of them.

micah: My point wasn’t really that there’s upside for Trump, though maybe there’s a bit of that, but more that it undermines faith that the government is acting for non-political, non-personal reasons.

It’s just destabilizing, as Clare said.

clare.malone: Well, here’s one thing I will say: Trump’s actions on Sessions do lend credence to the theory that Trump governs in a deeply personal way. I.e., what is best for me, my family? You see this with the trial balloons they’re out there floating about a president being able to pardon himself, etc.

I guess on a human level, if you believe in the social contract and people submitting some of their freedom for the rule of law, that’s what’s ultimately destabilizing — that Trump might be thinking of himself rather than the greater utilitarian good.

harry: What’s also so interesting to me is that Sessions was one of Trump’s first supporters. He supported him during the primary when few others would. Now, Trump is willing to throw Sessions under the bus because he “went against” Trump (in Trump’s view). The thing that Trump keeps focusing on is loyalty, and I think we should take Trump’s word on that. It’s his guiding principle.

natesilver: Yeah, that’s another consequence. Loyalty doesn’t mean very much to Trump. Ask Jeff Sessions. Ask Joe (LOLOLOLOLOLOL) Scarborough.

And that makes it harder to find allies in the future, when you keep throwing people under the bus.

micah: To close us out, a quick over/under: Jeff Sessions will still be attorney general on Sept. 1, 2017. Would you take the over or under? (For non-gamblers, the “under” means you think Sessions will be out before then, the “over” after.)

natesilver: Hmm … that’s not an over/under Micah. That’s just a bet!

harry: I’ll take the points. Since we’re just throwing random gambling words around.

clare.malone: Can we talk like regular humans? He will be out before Sept. 1.

micah: UNDER!

natesilver: I think he’ll still be AG.

micah: OVER!

harry: I’ll say he gets fired on exactly Sept. 1. So I’ll be a push.

natesilver: Trump actually doesn’t fire people that much. He threatens to fire people more than he actually does it. And he’s reading/watching some of the publications that are against the Sessions firing.

clare.malone: Are you taking “The Apprentice” into this data set?

natesilver: Who has he fired as president, other than Comey? (Granted, Comey was a big one.)

clare.malone: Corey Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Comey.

micah: lol

clare.malone: I’m going campaign too, which I think is fair game.

micah: Clare, just dropped the mic on Nate.

natesilver: Manafort wasn’t fired. Neither was Flynn. And Lewandowski kept getting a paycheck.

clare.malone: “Forced out” — normal people get FIRED. Rich people/execs get “forced out” or “resign.”

harry: Trump likes to do what I call the George Costanza — make it nearly impossible for the person to work there any longer and force them to quit.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.