I don’t know who to feel sorrier for. On one side stands our president, Donald Trump, who nine months after his surprise Election Day victory is still lashing out at that contest’s loser, Hillary Clinton.
On the other side stands our attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whose loyalty to Trump — as a senator, Sessions was one of the first Republicans during the campaign to endorse the brash businessman — is now being rewarded by presidential tweets labeling the Cabinet member as “beleaguered.”
That the president — he of “covfefe” fame and author of many other English-slaying tweets — spelled the adjective, meaning “besieged” but frequently used as a synonym for “embattled,” correctly is another matter. What matters here is that it is Trump himself, the one who nominated Sessions to lead the Justice Department, who is doing the battling.
It’s hard not to conjure sympathy for Sessions. Yes, he misspoke about Russian contacts he had during the course of the campaign. Yes, he enabled a man who seems to give no weight to national tradition and constitutional norms to occupy the Oval Office. Yes, he seems hell-bent on going after low-level, nonviolent drug users, reinstating the failed anti-drug campaigns of the ’80s and ’90s, and depriving cities such as ours of badly needed federal law enforcement funds.
But Sessions could quickly find himself out of a job, pushed out by the president who gave it to him, for essentially doing that job.
As the nation’s chief law enforcement official, it would have been unconscionable for him to not recognize his clear conflicts of interest and recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russian contacts.
And yet Trump, who seems to have a vague idea of conflicts of interest — as a candidate, he said last year that a federal judge was unable to preside over a lawsuit dealing with Trump University because the judge was of Mexican heritage — appears to have turned on Sessions precisely because of that recusal.
Poor Jeff Sessions.
Then again, it’s hard not to feel genuine sympathy for Trump, a man who, despite winning the election, sitting in that Oval Office and being the leader of the free world cannot seem to content himself with the knowledge that he is the president of the United States.
On July 24, hours after his Twitter storm bashing Sessions, he once again resurrected the tired tropes of the campaign and inveighed against “crooked Hillary,” “fake news” and the Washington “swamp,” only this time he also chose to change its moniker to “sewer.”
Oh, and he also threatened to fire another Cabinet member, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, if he didn’t secure enough Senate votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Where did the president go on this tirade? At no other than what is supposed to be the most unpolitical of locations: an annual gathering of the Boy Scouts of America known as the Jamboree.
Any person so unhappy with his own success that he must crush all who no longer stand in his way is surely deserving of pity.
Poor President Trump.
When you get right down to it, it might very well be that the root of both Trump’s and Sessions’ problems are a misreading of their oaths of office. Both swore to uphold the Constitution, Trump pledging to “preserve, protect and defend” it, Sessions promising to “support and defend” it “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
But the president’s behavior with regard to Sessions and Price, as well as to fired FBI Director James Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe — to say nothing of the numerous other West Wing officials — seems more in keeping with his underlings swearing a personal oath of allegiance to Trump himself.
For those who need a refresher: The English-speaking peoples of this continent once had to declare an oath to a person and not to a form of government. Prior to 1776, to hold office in the 13 British colonies you had to “solemnly promise in the presence of Almighty God to bear faith and true allegiance to his sacred Majesty George III” and to “support, maintain and defend his crown and dignity against all traiterous attempts and conspiracies whatsoever.”
Still today, subjects of Queen Elizabeth II swear personal allegiance to the monarch, who at her coronation in 1953 herself swore to “cause law and justice, in mercy, to be executed in all [her] judgments.”
American oaths of office, however, are about the office and our system of laws. Far from the philosophical underpinnings of a monarchical system, we in the United States do not subscribe to the view that the highest leader in the land is infallible. We instead subordinate all of our figures to an 18th-century document that acts in the name of “the people.”
Our first president, George Washington, the man who could have easily become king, understood this. So did nearly every occupant after him, including even Richard Nixon, who resigned before subjecting this great nation to the constitutional crisis of removing a sitting president from office.
The jury is still out as to whether Trump, who is reportedly looking into whether the Constitution grants a president the supremely unjust power of pardoning himself, understands. That it’s not clear if he does is the sorriest thing of all.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]