Jeff Sessions is a martyr now. The white nationalist who served as Donald Trump’s attorney-general might never have imagined it. But the President so much as bestowed that blessing on him in firing him from his post on Wednesday.
On the same day Mr. Trump did the same favour for a journalist, “terrible person” Jim Acosta. The CNN grandstander was stripped of his White House credentials. He now has undeserved stature as well.
Two things have consumed Mr. Trump since becoming President: The Mueller inquiry into Russian collusion in the 2016 election and his treatment by what he sees as a hostile media. Seldom has a day gone by when his rancour hasn’t been directed at one or both of them. This week relations reached the breaking point and he took emphatic action on each, creating a well of sympathy for his antagonists and setting the stage for hostilities even more acute.
In respect to Mr. Acosta, the White House appears to have gone so far as to doctor a video to make it look like he was pushing aside a female intern at the Wednesday news conference. This was used as the rationale for stripping him of his access. It smacked of an administration with an authoritarian mindset.
Mr. Acosta hardly warrants any kind of martyrdom. He’s an attention seeker. Instead of asking questions, he argues, fights, stammers. He won’t shut up. He won’t sit down. It’s as if he’s trying to say, "Look at me, I’m a hero for standing up to the powers that be.”
The Sessions case is more important. As attorney-general he was able to act – to do his dirty work – under a protective shield of sorts. The only big talking point about him was his recusing himself from the Russia investigation and how this had embittered Mr. Trump. According to Bob Woodward’s book, Mr. Trump called the former senator from Alabama “mentally retarded” and other niceties.
Poor Jeff, as the narrative had it, soldiered on. But poor Jeff wasn’t doing so badly. He was effecting change he could only have dreamed of doing. If his vision of the United States was Alabama circa 1950, he was acting with that framework in mind. He was turning the clock way back on civil liberties, on criminal justice, on social rights, on immigration.
There had long been suspicions of him being a bigot when he got the job, not the least of which was his being denied a federal judgeship in 1986 owing to allegations he was a racist. In the presidential race, he aligned early and tightly with the odious nativism of Steve Bannon. He was the first senator to declare his support for Mr. Trump.
In office, he practised zero tolerance on illegal immigration. He led the push for the separation of migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border. The President finally had to pull back on it. Mr. Sessions tried to strip funding from cities accommodating undocumented immigrants. He was a cheerleader for the President’s travel ban. He ordered immigration judges to push hard on deportations.
On criminal justice, he was Jailor Jeff, seeking the harshest penalties possible, taking a hard line on soft drug abusers, allowing police departments free rein and promoting the installation of judges of the far right.
On civil-liberties protections, on voting-rights protections, on transgender-rights protection, Mr. Sessions was a scourge.
In a last-minute act before leaving Justice, he was true to form. He limited the capacity of law enforcement officials to overhaul police departments accused of abuses and civil-rights violations.
With the media obsessed by the Russia collusion file, Mr. Sessions carried out Mr. Trump’s racially infused nativist agenda with little scrutiny. Immediately upon his ouster, Mr. Trump installed a puppet, Matthew Whitaker, as his acting attorney-general. He is on record in any number of ways as opposing the Mueller inquiry.
After the midterm elections, hopes were expressed by Mr. Trump himself that for the sake of the unity of the country he would tone things down, take a softer approach. But in striking out against his demons in the same afternoon, he shut the door on those hopes.