Ever since Donald Trump performed a hostile takeover of the Republican Party in last year’s primaries, an uneasy truce has prevailed on the American right. Six months into his presidency, however, the ceasefire appears to be coming apart.
As with everything else in this administration, the whole thing is playing out on Fox News and Twitter.
There are essentially three different groups of Republicans in Trump’s GOP:
1) Conservative activists still eager to enact the campaign platform of Barry Goldwater in 1964; 2) party professionals who are primarily interested in helping their business allies; and 3) dedicated supporters of Trump himself. This last group is comprised of those who loved the president before he entered politics and nationalist conservatives who are largely concerned with thwarting liberals and shutting down immigration, illegal or otherwise.
All three camps strongly disagree and dislike each other — only one, the nationalists, actually supported Trump’s presidential bid from the beginning. After Trump was inaugurated in January victory, the feuding factions have mostly been cooperative as the GOP at large has pursued the president’s policy agenda of repealing Obamacare, cracking down on immigration and crime, fighting “radical Islamic extremism,” and staffing the judiciary and the executive branch with small-government enthusiasts.
But as my colleague Heather Digby Parton noted on Wednesday, there are signs that the uneasy truce between the factions might be starting to break down, thanks to Trump’s persistent public criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Department of Justice’s inquiry into Russian interference in the presidential election.
Several reports have suggested that Trump’s constant drumbeat of tweets against his chief law enforcement officer is part of an effort to humiliate Sessions into resigning his position so Trump can appoint someone else who will then either terminate or scale back the Russia investigation, especially as special counsel Robert Mueller edges closer and closer into Trump’s personal finances.
While such a move would gratify the president’s fragile ego and potentially enable him to cover up financial irregularities in which he, his family members, or his close associates may have become involved, firing Sessions to rein in Mueller is starting to look like a political disaster in the making.
For party-oriented Republicans, the strong similarities between Trump’s potential action and those taken by former President Richard Nixon when he fired both the attorney general and the deputy attorney general in the infamous Saturday Night Massacre of 1973 -- a failed attempt to thwart the Watergate investigation -- would likely be enough to cause him to lose their support. The firestorm of Democratic and media outrage that would ensue would lead at least a few Republicans to defy the president openly.
"There will be no confirmation hearing for a new attorney general in 2017. If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay," Sen. Lindsey Graham warned Trump in an interview with NBC. The South Carolina senator, long a Trump skeptic, is one of the best indicators of conventional Republican establishment sentiment.
Conservative activists don’t appear to be as perturbed at the rule-of-law implications of attempting to rein in Mueller (although they’d have felt much differently if former President Bill Clinton had pursued a similar ploy against the independent counsels who investigated his administration). What does seem to concern them is that eliminating Sessions would be a significant setback for their ideological agenda. White House strategist Steve Bannon normally sides with the nationalists, but when it comes to dealing with the numerous controversies of the Trump administration, he seems to be routinely casting his lot with the traditional conservatives.
Last week, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson gave voice to that sentiment in terms that were astonishingly stark for his normally pro-Trump show.
Carlson began his rant by calling the president “a 71-year-old political novice” who was engaging in a “useless, self-destructive act” by attacking Sessions.
“The first rule in politics, as in war, as in life, don’t shoot the friendlies,” Carlson argued. “For God’s sakes, lay off Jeff Sessions: He is your friend, one of the very few you have in Washington.”
That’s almost exactly correct. Unlike the vast majority of Trump’s Cabinet appointees and congressional allies, Sessions actually understands how government works and what levers to pull to make it do things.
The contrast between Sessions and most of Trump’s other Cabinet members is pretty stark. As a presidential candidate, Energy Secretary Rick Perry repeatedly called for the department he now leads to be eliminated, including once when he couldn’t remember its name. Once he was confirmed, Perry later admitted that he had essentially no idea what its functions were before he was nominated.
Ben Carson, who heads up the Department of Housing and Urban Development is a retired surgeon with no government experience or past interest in urban planning. Betsy DeVos has been put in charge of the Department of Education despite having no experience in government or education.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who also has no government experience, appears to have walked away from his job “for a few days.” Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, literally was fired by the Obama administration for erratic behavior. He was also under FBI investigation for his dealings with foreign governments (including Russia) when Trump appointed him.
You don’t have to agree with Sessions’ views to realize that his DOJ has been far more effective at promoting Trump’s agenda than the Republican Congress or any of the other federal agencies.
Many other conservative activists and Republican politicians have chimed in to make similar points in defense of Sessions and even Mueller, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. Carlson has kept up his campaign in favor of Sessions as well, hosting him on his program Thursday evening.
Ordinarily, when Republican Party officials and conservative activists decide to oppose something, even Trump will refrain from doing it. His campaign promises to make no cuts to Medicaid, raise the minimum wage, and start a trade war with China went out the window long ago, thanks to strong opposition from his own party.
But on the question of firing Sessions in order to curtail Mueller, the third Republican faction — the nationalists and Trump diehards — seems to be OK with the president doing whatever he sees fit to, if it puts an end to the Russia inquiry. This group appears to include most GOP voters. In a poll released Wednesday by Politico, just 29 percent of Republican respondents said it would be inappropriate for Trump to fire the special counsel, while 37 percent said it would be OK with them and 34 percent were undecided.
Normally, Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner sides with the party professionals but given his personal involvement in the Russia scandal (he was present in the now-infamous meeting that Donald Trump Jr. had with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, and also failed to disclose several other contacts with Russian officials), Kushner has been a strong backer of taking a hard line. It’s not clear what Kushner’s position on Sessions or Mueller is, but multiple sources have said he was an emphatic supporter of the decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.
The Mueller-haters have also found several sympathizers among a number of Fox News personalities, including Steve Doocy of “Fox & Friends,” the dim-witted morning gabfest that Trump appears to watch every single day. He even records it for later in case he's unable to watch while it's live.
Eager to please their devoted fan, Doocy and his colleagues routinely regale their audience with segments contending that the Russia scandal is just a figment of the liberal media’s imagination. They also seem to be trying to convince the president that getting the DOJ to investigate his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton would somehow lessen his own problems.
Last Thursday's episode of the program provided a perfect example of the type of news fare that Trump imbibes every morning as the hosts jumped all over themselves to defend the president while also distancing him from false answers that Sessions gave during his Senate confirmation hearing:
STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): Had he [Trump] known at the time -- keep in mind, he has not been a politician very long -- had he known that when you're in the Department of Justice, if you're involved in any way with some sort of an investigation, you've got to recuse yourself. Had Jeff Sessions told him, anybody from the Department of Justice told him that, probably would have said, you know what, I love Jeff Sessions, he was the first guy from the U.S. Senate who helped me out, but you know what, Jeff? The AG job is not for you. ...
EARHARDT: The president's just saying what's on his mind. This is the biggest investigation, this is the biggest thing on Jeff Sessions's table or on his desk, and he's recusing himself from it, and that's what the president is saying. He's saying, you know, it's like you getting a job and getting hired and you don't do the big project at work.
DOOCY: Sure. Keep in mind, Donald Trump is a fighter, and he wants people who are on his team who are fighters as well. He doesn't want somebody who's got to fold before they can fight.
Other Fox News personalities on-board the "fire everybody" train include Trump sycophant Sean Hannity and daytime anchor Gregg Jarrett. (To no one's surprise, Trump cheerleader and professional right-wing troll Ann Coulter has also been baying for Sessions' dismissal.)
The one thing all of these people have in common is that they have essentially no government or political experience. Following their advice to get rid of Sessions and crack down on Mueller would alienate many of his most devoted allies and cause high-level Democrats to start calling for impeachment.
The move would very clearly be stupid and short-sighted. But since when has that stopped Trump from doing anything? After all, the people on TV told him to do it, so it must be OK.