Let us now praise Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.
Rejected for a judgeship by the Senate over accusations of racism, the Alabamian later became a senator known for hostility toward the Voting Rights Act, outspoken opposition to (even legal) immigration, and being the first senator to back Donald Trump for president.
But it turns out that, deep down, Sessions has a redeeming characteristic: a quaint faith in the rule of law.
For the umpteenth time, Trump this past week attacked his attorney general, whom he once dubbed “Mr. Magoo,” over Sessions’s proper decision to recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation. “What kind of a man is this?” Trump asked on Fox News.
The assault continued Friday morning.
Sessions, who has long endured Trump’s mockery, this time returned fire. “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations,” he said in a statement. He added that he is “proud of the work we have done in successfully advancing the rule of law.”
Last week may turn out to have been a turning point. It was the moment the justice system landed two blows against an unfit leader: the conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on charges related to bank and tax fraud, and the guilty plea by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who implicated Trump in a campaign finance crime. More significantly, Trump’s own people began to turn against him.
A leader who demanded loyalty but rarely gave it is now being repaid in kind. For a man who craves approval above all else, this must feel lonely. The most qualified didn’t want to join his administration, and Trump was suspicious of them, but he presumed loyalty among the misfits he assembled.
“The only reason I gave him [Sessions] the job is because I felt loyalty,” Trump lamented to Fox News. This echoed Trump’s infamous dinner with then-FBI Director James B. Comey, when, according to Comey, Trump said: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
Now it seems even the most “loyal” are not necessarily so:
Last weekend came reports that White House counsel Donald McGahn was cooperating extensively with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s prosecutors, perhaps more than Trump realized.
On Tuesday, Cohen, who once said he would take a bullet for Trump, reached a plea deal that implicated the president in the clandestine efforts to buy the silence of two women alleging affairs with Trump.
Thursday brought news that David Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer and old Trump friend who allegedly helped hush one woman’s story, was granted immunity in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors.
On Friday, word came that Allen Weisselberg, a longtime Trump ally and chief financial officer at the Trump Organization, had also been granted immunity.
Meanwhile, Omarosa Manigault Newman, a star of “The Apprentice” who Trump brought to the White House, is perched at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list with her tell-all, “Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House.”
They join Sessions and others who previously “betrayed” Trump: Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, who publicly contradicted Trump on Russian election interference; and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who has long endured Trump’s enmity for authorizing and protecting the Mueller probe.
Trump is now trying to dissuade Manafort from cooperating with Mueller by dangling a pardon and declaring his “great respect” for the felon. But Manafort presumably remembers Trump disowning him, citing his “very limited role” in the campaign.
Those who remain loyal, at least publicly, are a sorry crew.
There is economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who, The Washington Post reported, hosted the publisher of a white-supremacist outlet over the weekend. There’s the once-admired Rudolph W. Giuliani, now telling us “truth isn’t truth.”
To be sure, Trump still has broad support among congressional Republicans. But that’s not loyalty. It’s self-interest, because 87 percent of Republican voters support Trump.
Typical of this opportunism is Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., who Thursday said Trump is “entitled” to switch attorneys general.
Graham previously said there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump fired Sessions.
This earned Graham a justified rebuke from Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who, on the Senate floor, warned against firing “the attorney general because he’s not executing his job as a political hack. ... The attorney general’s job is to be faithful to the Constitution and to the rule of law.”
In ordinary times, it would be a matter of course, not heroism, for an attorney general to believe in the rule of law.
But the struggle in the Trump administration is between those with no integrity and those who retain a shred. In dark times, we need the shreds.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.