I still remember my surprise when Jeff Sessions strolled onto the stage at then-candidate Donald Trump's rally in Mobile, Alabama, in August 2016, donning a "Make America Great Again" hat. It was the first show of support Trump had from an elected official at that level.
At the time, I still believed Trump's candidacy was a joke. Sessions' decision to legitimize him would only make the senator look foolish. But Sessions saw something in Trump's appeal I missed: The lawyer and politician who built a career around disenfranchising the already disenfranchised knew that after eight years of a black president, white Americans were ready to elect one who appealed to their sense of entitled resentment.
He was right; I was wrong. And now he's attorney general of the United States.
Or at least he's attorney general as I write this. It's quite possible by the time you read this column, Sessions will no longer run the Justice Department – fired or forced to resign by a president who has so far spent a week humiliating him.
Trump isn't being subtle about it. He hasn't hinted he'd rather see his AG bow out gracefully. He's called him "VERY weak" and "beleaguered." (There's something poetic about calling someone beleaguered when you're the one beleaguering him.)
When other high-profile Trump supporters like Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani were dumped by the roadside without administration jobs, Sessions ended up with one of the most powerful jobs in the nation – and the opportunity to enact the regressive agenda targeting minorities he's always dreamed about. So why is Trump humiliating him now?
President Trump isn't happy about the various investigations ("witch hunt!") into his campaign's possible collusion with Russia and his own potential obstruction of justice, but it's Robert Mueller's independent investigation that angers and scares him the most. It's run out of the Department of Justice; Jeff Sessions runs the Department of Justice. Ergo, by Trump's thinking, Sessions should be able to shut it down. But Sessions' recusal from the Trump/Russia investigation made his firing Mueller impossible. And it's that recusal explicitly driving Trump's fury.
Trump sees the recusal as the ultimate act of disloyalty. Why should he have appointed an attorney general who wouldn't be able to protect him? Forget that Sessions only recused himself because of the heat he faced for lying under oath in his confirmation hearing about his own contacts with Russians. Forget that protecting the president is not the attorney general's job. What matters is if you work for Trump, you give him your loyalty. Take James Comey: He wouldn't give his, and he's out of a job.
Only it isn't loyalty Trump actually wants from the people around him. There's something noble in true loyalty – standing by a person who deserves your support and returns it. But loyalty to Trump is never a two-way street. He doesn't return it or even reward it.
Trump doesn't want your loyalty. He wants your fealty.
There's a real difference. When you sign up to join Trump's circle in any capacity, you're signing away your dignity. Sessions is just the latest example. Sean Spicer stood at a podium and lied for six straight months on Trump's behalf. He was a successful and well-liked political operative. Now he's an unemployed national punchline. Trump wouldn't even let the poor bastard meet the pope, just to humiliate him.
That's how Trump treats people who serve him faithfully. No one is safe from the president's mercurial moods. He even threw a passive-aggressive "he's a high-quality person" at his own son. Was it any wonder Jeff Sessions would eventually meet an ugly end?
You can live up to the demands of loyalty by always doing what you think is best for a person. But you can never live up to the demands of fealty set by an egomaniac like Donald Trump. You'd have to be telepathic and clairvoyant, knowing both what Trump is thinking and what all his future moods will look like. You have to anticipate every obstacle, real or imagined. You have to do more than just lie for Trump. You have to honestly believe his distorted, constantly shifting vision of reality. That's an impossible standard to meet.
I have no sympathy for Jeff Sessions. He's a terrible attorney general because he's a terrible human being. Since taking office, he has encouraged police to increase asset forfeitures, told federal prosecutors to put people in jail as long as possible, spoken to an anti-gay hate group, ended an effort to raise standards of forensic science, ramped up enforcement against undocumented immigrants, shut down reviews of abuses by police departments, threatened to take DOJ grants away from sanctuary cities, went all Reefer Madness, stopped a DOJ fight against a Texas law rolling back voting rights, and moved backward on transgender rights.
Of course Sessions should be fired. Our nation's top law enforcement officer should be someone who fights to restore the rights and power of Americans who lack both. But at every opportunity, Sessions fights for the powerful and against the oppressed. He has no place in a department named Justice.
But somehow Trump has managed to find the one bad reason to fire Sessions. The only thing he's done right since becoming attorney general was recusing himself from the Russian investigation (and that was only half-right – he should have resigned), and Trump is on the verge of sending him packing because that action was inconvenient to Donald Trump.
To anyone out there considering joining this administration: This is the fate that awaits you. You can do what Comey refused to do and pledge your undying loyalty to Trump. It won't be enough. You can do everything he asks you to do. It won't be enough. It will never be enough. Only one person on earth shows President Trump the fealty he demands, and he sees him every time he looks in the mirror.