Jeff Sessions was a terrible choice for attorney general, and the policies he has pursued in his brief tenure — cracking down on immigrants, bullying sheriffs, prosecuting low-level offenders to the max — are counterproductive. But the stinging personal attacks President Donald Trump leveled at Sessions this week, aimed at sidetracking the investigations into Russia's interference in the 2016 election and any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, are an assault on the integrity of the Justice Department and the rule of law. Sessions and members of Congress from both parties need to push back and call out these attacks before the president triggers a constitutional crisis.
Sessions' indifference to civil liberties, smart policing and the separation of state and federal powers makes him a dangerous attorney general. The former senator from Alabama all but auditioned for the job last year, attacking Hillary Clinton on behalf of Trump's presidential bid in the same mean-spirited and self-promotional style that he is now forced to endure on the receiving end. But the series of humiliating tweets and public comments by the president this week have nothing to do with policy, and they don't even relate to Sessions' fitness for this office. Rather, they are broadsides by the president meant to unsettle federal investigators and derail their probe that is far from over.
Trump told the New York Times in an interview last week that he never would have chosen Sessions as attorney general had he known that Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation. Trump said Sessions' recusal was "very unfair to the president," and he echoed the remarks this week, saying he was "disappointed in the attorney general" and that "time will tell" if Sessions would be forced from the job. Trump continued berating Sessions and the acting head of the FBI, calling Sessions "VERY weak" on investigating Clinton. He singled out the FBI director as a "friend" of former FBI director James Comey, who was ousted by Trump and who later accused the president of requesting that he go easy on the Russia probe.
Trump's cyber-bullying, which continued Wednesday, followed disclosures his son and others in the campaign met last year with Russian representatives who offered dirt on Clinton. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who attended the same meeting, appeared before congressional committees this week. By pressuring Sessions to quit or intervene in the Russia probe, the president is lining the dominoes to fall, clearing a path to discredit the investigation, fire special counsel Robert Mueller and appoint a more compliant attorney general. As the White House's new communications director said this week, fittingly tone-deaf: "The president wants his Cabinet secretaries to have his back."
Sessions may be a member of Trump's Cabinet. But as attorney general he is not the president's lawyer but the country's top law enforcement officer. Trump has shown he has no regard for the independence of his own federal prosecutors or for the integrity of the Russia investigation. Some members of Congress have come to Sessions' defense, but it's time the attorney general publicly defend the Justice Department. The president has crossed a line and sent a challenge to the two other branches of government. He needs to be told in no uncertain terms that the law and due process trump loyalty.