Analysis

The Jeff Sessions Superstorm and 'The Cancer on the Presidency'

People who fear Trump's policies should pray for the return of his previous vulgar and repellent personality.

This file photo taken on February 09, 2017 shows Donald Trump speaking alongside Jeff Sessions after Sessions was sworn in as Attorney General in the White House in Washington, DC.
SAUL LOEB/AFP

1. There are three possibilities: 

a. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress and possibly committed a felony, which carries a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment, when he stated unequivocally during his confirmation hearings that he had not met any Russians during the election campaign 

b. Sessions is suffering from acute amnesia that erased any memory of his two meetings with Russian envoy Sergey Kislyak 

c. Sessions is so dense that he actually thought that if he claimed that he didn’t mention these meetings because he was acting as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee rather than a Trump campaign adviser, everything would be forgotten and forgiven.

The right answer is clear as daylight, of course, although Sessions and Trump administration spokespersons are now trying to portray day as night and black as white, or at least a blurry grey. One way or another, the bombshell thrown by The Washington Post on Wednesday night, in which Session’s meetings with Kislyak were exposed, ended the very short honeymoon that Trump and the media had enjoyed following the President’s Tuesday night speech to Congress. After 24 hours in which much of the media had declared a new dawn, with some even going so far as to predicting Trump’s reelection in 2020, the sides were back in the trenches. The administration took a grievous body blow that will surely make it bleed, if not worse.

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The complex web of ties between Trump and his advisers and the Russian regime has already claimed one major victim, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign. Trump’s disturbing links with the Kremlin threatened to derail his election campaign, tarnished his electoral victory on November 8, 2016 and continue to cast a dark shadow over his Presidency in the wake of his January 20 inauguration. 

Although a smoking gun that could prove such illicit links beyond a reasonable doubt has yet to be found, the preponderance of circumstantial evidence is nearing the point that could enable conviction, if this was a criminal trial. Trump’s curious kowtowing to Vladimir Putin, his public call during the election campaign for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s computers, the fact that the Russians did indeed break into the computers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in order to help Trump win, the unresolved links between so many of Trump’s advisers with Moscow, Flynn’s efforts to conceal his talks with Kislyak, the continued reports of incriminating information that the Russians are holding about Trump, his ongoing efforts to shut down the leakers and the investigations - all of these and more lead us to one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s favorite sayings: If it looks like a Russian plot, sounds like a Russian plot and is unfolding like a Russian plot, then it’s a plot, made in Russia.

Washington is now transfixed by the guerrilla warfare between the leakers, who are relying on intelligence information left behind by the outgoing Obama administration, as the New York Times reported on Thursday, and the White House, which is trying to have Trump declared free to go and white as snow. Time is on his side, of course, because he has all the power, influence and deterrence of the White House behind him, but only on condition that red lines aren’t crossed, compelling the FBI and the Justice Department as well as the GOP majority in Congress to take steps that will ultimately harm if not cripple the President. The new revelations about Sessions bring us close to that red line, and perhaps even beyond it.

At this point, Sessions' job does not seem to be in immediate danger. On Thursday he rejected allegations against him and recused himself from the investigation, although his subordinates at Justice also face a similar conflict of interests. Some Republican lawmakers are starting to voice hesitant support for the Democratic demand to appoint a special prosecutor who could operate outside the Justice Department. Such an appointment is inevitably associated with Watergate and other saucy scandals, such as the Monica Lewinsky affair, but the legal situation has changed since then. The only person who can appoint a special counsel as he is termed today, the only office holder to which said special counsel is required to report and answer to, is the Attorney General, one Jeff Sessions. 

2. The first special prosecutor, as the post was called then, was Archibald Cox, who was appointed in 1973 to investigate the Watergate Affair. Cox was named by Attorney General Elliot Richardson, after the Democratic Congress made his confirmation contingent on his appointing a special prosecutor. Needless to say, the Republican Congress in 2017 didn’t burden itself with such trifles.

Cox, a distinguished jurist who was close to John Kennedy, served as special prosecutor for only five months. His name is etched in history books mainly because of the way he was fired in one of the most dramatic evenings in the history of the U.S., which came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre. In October 1973, Cox demanded that the White House hand over the secret tape recordings, the existence of which had been revealed a few months earlier in the Congressional testimony of Nixon’s assistant, Alexander Butterfield. In a gambit that gives cynicism a bad name, Nixon responded with a compromise offer that Democratic Senator John Stennis, 72 and famously hard of hearing, would listen to the tapes and give Cox a summary. When Cox refused, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire him. Richardson refused and resigned, then his deputy William Ruckleshaus refused and resigned until Solicitor General Robert Bork, whose candidacy for the Supreme Court would be rejected by the Senate a decade later, finally did the President’s bidding. Facing growing public pressure, however, Bork shortly appointed Texan lawyer Leon Jaworski as Cox’s replacement. Jaworski continued where Cox had left off, ultimately dragging Nixon all the way to the Supreme Court, which ordered the President to hand over the tapes and thus sealed his fate and ensured his demise.

One can well understand why Trump would want to distance himself from such a precedent, although the more he drags his feet the more he will be open to attacks that he too is engaging in a cover up, which is what ultimately did Nixon in. All of which brings us to the famous March 21, 1973 tape recording of the conversation between Nixon and White House counsel John Dean, who was complicit in the cover-up but later cooperated with Watergate investigators. Dean believed, naively, that Nixon was unaware of his advisers’ efforts to cover up the 1972 break-in to the offices of the Democratic National Committee - what a coincidence - and sought to warn Nixon that the White House was getting embroiled in a conspiracy to obstruct justice. “There is a cancer on the Presidency,” he said, “that is growing daily and compounding” and could soon “bust” wide open. As it very quickly did.

3. Another Watergate flashback - positive this time, at least for journalists - is the escalating war over scoops and prestige between the New York Times and the Washington Post. This unhidden rivalry was one of the reasons that legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee later cited as a prime motivation for backing young reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they started to methodically decipher the Watergate labyrinth, and the rest is truly history. Although the Times as well as Time Magazine and television news networks contributed to the exposures, it is the Post that is credited with the unraveling of the Watergate cover-up and the fall of President Nixon. It’s not for nothing that the mid-70’s are considered the golden age of investigative journalism.

The Washington Post continued to thrive in the 1980’s and 1990’s though more on the business than on the news side. It was a period in which the New York Times solidified its position as a newspaper of national and international stature while the Post remained, in essence, a local Washington publication. At the turn of the century, the Post’s financial situation started to deteriorate as well, until Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought it up in 2013. The hi-tech entrepreneur pivoted the Post to the digital age, spent millions bringing in new talent and appointed former Boston Globe editor, Martin Baron, of Spotlight fame, as the editor. The Post began flexing its muscles and giving the Times a run for its money again, but in recent months, since Trump was elected, it is once again leaving the Grey Lady, as the Times is called, far behind. From Trump’s point of view, the Post’s regained glory comes at the worst possible time.

4. Israelis used to boast that they produce more news in a week than most countries do in a year, but since the election of the impetuous and unpredictable Trump, America has become the number one news-maker in the world by far. On Saturday Trump was still waging holy war against the media and the FBI, on Sunday immigration police swarmed all over the country seeking out illegal immigrants, on Monday the world was scandalized by the mix-up at the Oscars, on Tuesday the Jews were shocked by Trump’s reported assertion that the anti-Semitic attacks were some sort of false flag operation, on Wednesday a new dawn was ushered in following Trump’s speech to Congress, which included unequivocal condemnation of the same anti-Semitic incidents, but by Thursday, the Sessions category five superstorm had already broken out.

Trump’s reprieve, however short, was nonetheless sweet. The media praised his new presidential style, taking little notice that his song remained essentially the same. For the first time in a long time, the complaints about an irresponsible media came not from Trump but from the Democrats and the left, who accused analysts and commentators of succumbing blindly to Trump’s machinations, including his gesture, which they deem cynical, to the widow of Ryan Owens, the SEAL commando who died in a raid on Yemen.

The Sessions brouhaha will quickly make clear whether Trump has really changed or whether he is going back to his old, surly self, as many analysts believe. Many Americans are hoping to see Trump move away permanently from his abrasive persona and turn into a calmer and gentler President, but there is a massive fly in such an ointment. What has made Trump falter in public opinion in recent weeks isn’t his irresponsible policies but his half-crazed behavior. His speech in Congress, however, showed how easy it would be for Trump to win back public opinion and much of the media, with the help of a gentler tone and a few simple gestures. 

The possibility that Trump could drum up widespread support for policies that would harm immigrants, poor Americans, gay people, women, Muslims and Jews, policies that curtail rights and freedoms and spread hostility and apprehension throughout the world should keep people who love America awake at nights. For the sake of justice, liberty and world peace - as well as the prosperity of the press - everyone must demand the immediate return of the old, vulgar, self-centered, irritating, batty and otherwise repellent President Trump.