The blood­let­ting will only get much worse

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - By PAUL WALDMAN

It was fit­ting that less than 24 hours af­ter his party lost the House, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump launched a purge of his ad­min­is­tra­tion by de­mand­ing the res­ig­na­tion of At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions. De­spite be­ing one of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s few ca­pa­ble top of­fi­cials (as ret­ro­grade as his agenda was), Ses­sions had earned Trump’s con­tempt by re­cus­ing him­self from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which as a mem­ber of the 2016 cam­paign with his own undis­closed con­tacts with Rus­sian of­fi­cials he had no choice but to do.

The pres­i­dent has said pub­licly on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions that he was shocked and an­gry to dis­cover that Ses­sions had a con­cep­tion of the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s job that went be­yond per­sonal loy­alty to Don­ald Trump.

By re­plac­ing Ses­sions on an act­ing ba­sis with his chief of staff, Matthew Whi­taker, Trump has given us a win­dow into the com­ing blood­let­ting. Trump has a much bet­ter idea than he did two years ago about what he needs and wants in his un­der­lings, so he has likely shifted his thoughts about per­son­nel. The re­sult will prob­a­bly be an ad­min­is­tra­tion whose patholo­gies are even worse than they are now, as Trump adapts to a new phase in his pres­i­dency which, with Democrats tak­ing over the House, will put him in much greater po­lit­i­cal peril.

Whi­taker is a per­fect ex­am­ple of the change. A for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney, he has spent the last few years as a far-right ac­tivist, start­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tion to hound Democrats with ethics com­plaints and op­pose Demo­cratic ju­di­cial nom­i­nees af­ter an un­suc­cess­ful run for Se­nate in Iowa in 2014. That year he ran to the right of the ex­tremely con­ser­va­tive even­tual vic­tor Joni Ernst; in one de­bate he was asked what his cri­te­ria for eval­u­at­ing ju­di­cial nom­i­nees would be, and he said, “Are they peo­ple of faith? Do they have a bib­li­cal view of jus­tice?”

Whi­taker has ex­pressed the be­lief that the courts have vir­tu­ally no power to con­strain the other two branches of govern­ment, though his thoughts on this topic are ut­terly in­co­her­ent ex­cept in­so­far as they amount to the prin­ci­ple that what­ever out­come con­ser­va­tives like in any given case is what the Con­sti­tu­tion de­mands.

Whi­taker also seems to share with the pres­i­dent a kin­ship of spirit. He was part of an in­ven­tion-mar­ket­ing com­pany that fea­tured a “time-travel sci­en­tist” on its board and was shut down by the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion af­ter the FTC de­ter­mined it had scammed in­ven­tors out of mil­lions of dol­lars. It’s al­ready be­ing called “Trump Univer­sity for in­ven­tors.” But most im­por­tantly, Whi­taker re­peat­edly crit­i­cized the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion in print and on TV be­fore join­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

That more than any­thing else is surely what con­vinced Trump that Whi­taker would be his guy – and noth­ing is more im­por­tant to Trump. The things Ses­sions was do­ing as at­tor­ney gen­eral, like crack­ing down on im­mi­grants and restart­ing the War on Drugs, were all well and good. But es­pe­cially now with Democrats hold­ing a house of Congress from which they can re­strain and be­devil the pres­i­dent, per­sonal loy­alty is the high­est con­sid­er­a­tion.

This was al­ways im­por­tant to Trump, but at first he may not have re­al­ized that he couldn’t nec­es­sar­ily count on ev­ery­one around him to make it their top pri­or­ity. Faced with the daunt­ing task of fill­ing thou­sands of po­si­tions in his new ad­min­is­tra­tion, Trump ex­er­cised only min­i­mal over­sight on the process, mostly farm­ing it out to oth­ers. Apart from in­stalling a few cronies here and there, he al­lowed al­lies and aides to pop­u­late the ex­ec­u­tive branch with Repub­li­cans who could be counted on to pur­sue the party’s agenda. While can­di­dates were screened for dis­loy­alty and of­ten ex­cluded from con­sid­er­a­tion if they had spo­ken ill of the pres­i­dent dur­ing the pri­maries, there wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily a re­quire­ment that they be en­thu­si­as­tic Trumpites so much as that they couldn’t have demon­strated any an­tipa­thy to­ward him.

But be­cause so many con­ser­va­tive pol­icy wonks and pro­fes­sion­als didn’t want to stain their rep­u­ta­tions by work­ing for Trump, the Repub­li­can bar­rel had to be scraped to its bot­tom to find enough peo­ple to fill out the ranks, lead­ing to an ad­min­is­tra­tion that has been pop­u­lated by the in­com­pe­tent, the buf­foon­ish, and the cor­rupt. Trump usu­ally acted as though as long as you didn’t op­pose him di­rectly or do any­thing to em­bar­rass him, he didn’t much care how you went about your busi­ness.

But Trump’s at­ten­tion is now fo­cused on self-preser­va­tion. With his re-elec­tion cam­paign loom­ing and Democrats in pos­ses­sion of sub­poena power, more than ever be­fore he’ll want to be as­sured that he’s sur­rounded by peo­ple who have no higher pur­pose than pro­tect­ing him. Now he’ll be look­ing at ev­ery­one who works for him and ask­ing, “Is there any­thing this per­son cares about more than pro­tect­ing me?” If the an­swer is yes, they won’t last long.

Of course, not ev­ery cor­ner of the ad­min­is­tra­tion is the same – I’m sure Trump nei­ther knows nor cares who the deputy un­der­sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture is. Much of his at­ten­tion is go­ing to fo­cus on the Jus­tice Depart­ment, be­cause by its na­ture law en­force­ment is a threat to him. But if I worked in the ad­min­is­tra­tion I’d be up­dat­ing my re­sume just in case, or maybe draft­ing some op-eds about how Don­ald Trump is the most per­fect hu­man be­ing to have ever walked the earth. Be­cause a lot of peo­ple are go­ing to be get­ting fired.

Paul Waldman is an opin­ion writer for the Plum Line blog.

An­drew Har­rer/Bloomberg

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions speaks dur­ing a Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing in Wash­ing­ton in April.

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