Donald Trump gave a wide-ranging and revealing interview to The New York Times on Wednesday. In it, he claimed to be entitled to halt any law enforcement investigation, and was astonishingly candid about his disrespect for the Justice Department and the FBI as well as his belief that law enforcement officials should serve his personal interests.
Trump kicked off the interview by attacking his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Trump claims this was “unfair” to him and he wouldn’t have appointed Sessions if he’d known he would recuse. But Sessions was only doing what the law requires.
A recusal is not an admission of guilt. When someone recuses, he merely removes himself from a matter that it would be inappropriate to be involved in. It’s normal for someone appointed to a new position to have to recuse himself from certain affairs. For instance, after President Obama appointed Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, she had to recuse herself from the numerous cases she had been involved in when she served as Obama’s solicitor general. Obama knew Kagan wouldn’t be able to participate in some cases, but appointed her anyway because she was the right person for the job.
Trump should have known Sessions could not oversee an investigation into a campaign to which he was an adviser. And if Trump were willing to let the investigation proceed independently, it wouldn’t be a problem that it might be run by someone other than an uber-Trump-loyalist. If the president believed Sessions to be the right person for the job, it shouldn’t matter that he might have to recuse himself from one investigation.
Sessions indicated in his confirmation hearing that he would consult counsel about how to handle conflicts arising from his work on the campaign. Once it was clear the Trump campaign was indeed under investigation and Sessions ultimately recused, he attributed that recusal to the predictable assessment of DOJ ethics officials: “that since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation.” Both Sessions and James Comey have indicated that Sessions’ recusal was in the works prior to the revelations of his undisclosed meetings. (Comey also testified that the recusal was inevitable for additional reasons that are classified.)
But because Sessions recused himself shortly after the news of his inaccurate testimony broke, many people – including Trump, apparently – are under the impression that Sessions recused himself because of Russia-related wrongdoing. While it’s likely true that the news affected the timing of Sessions’ recusal announcement, he would have been legally required to recuse even if he had never spoken to a single Russian person in his life.
By declaring in the Times interview that he would have appointed someone else if he knew Sessions would recuse, Trump openly admitted that his intention was to install a loyalist who would quash the investigation into Russian meddling, or at least prevent any Trump campaign involvement from being revealed.
In an odd twist in the Times interview, Trump also rightly criticized Sessions’ inaccurate confirmation hearing testimony, saying “he gave some answers that were simple questions and should have been simple answers, but they weren’t.” Indeed, as I have argued previously, whether or not Sessions committed perjury by deliberately lying, his failure to give complete and accurate testimony was a violation of the rules of professional conduct for lawyers and warrants his resignation. Yet Trump insists that despite Sessions’ “bad answers” regarding Russian contacts, he shouldn’t even have recused.
That is because Trump doesn’t really believe that being less than forthcoming about Russian associations is a problem. He’s excused the failures of his son, son-in-law, former national security adviser and other campaign associates to disclose meetings with Russian officials and agents, and has attacked those who have brought them to light.
The real outrage, according to Trump, is that too many officials are doing their jobs, rather than thwarting the law to further Trump’s personal interests. In the interview, Trump went on to attack:
—Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whom Trump appointed but now claims is probably biased because he’s from Baltimore, where “there are very few Republicans” (never mind that he’s actually from Philadelphia);
—Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a revered Republican former FBI director whom Trump was interested in having replace James Comey, but whom Trump now claims is biased because he’s hired Democrats to work on the Russia investigation (Mueller is legally barred from making hiring decisions based on political affiliation);
—Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, because his wife ran for office as a Democrat;
—and, of course, Comey, who Trump continues to allege broke the law by giving the press a classified memo (which was not, in fact, classified) describing the meeting in which Trump asked him to drop the Michael Flynn investigation.
Trump has targeted every official involved in the Russia investigation because he believes he is entitled to make the investigation go away. He openly rejects the independence of the DOJ and FBI, thinking they should work for him, personally, rather than for the country.
So Trump continues to engage in behavior that makes him look extremely guilty. Of course he might not have personally colluded with the Russian government during the campaign. But if that were the case, one would expect him to let the investigation proceed unimpeded in order to clear himself and his campaign – or at least to find out if some of his “satellite” associates were involved, which he allegedly told Comey it would be good to know.
Instead, Trump excoriated Sessions – one of his earliest and most loyal supporters – for meeting his most basic obligations concerning the Russia investigation. The whole interview must have had his lawyers’ heads exploding. But Trump doesn’t care whether his rants make him look like he has something to hide or provide further evidence of an intention to obstruct justice, because he believes the law doesn’t apply to him. He appears to aspire to be a president like his new bestie Vladimir Putin – accountable to no one. But that’s not possible if this is still a country that adheres to the rule of law.