Jeff Sessions, some long time ago, gave Donald Trump a signed resignation letter, which Trump used today.
Trump has been irritated at Sessions since Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions was a member of Trump’s campaign and has connections to the cast of thousands suspected to be involved in some way with Russian influence in that campaign. That has eaten at Trump, who believes that the Attorney General is the President’s consigliere. Trump has complained openly about this.
He has also nagged and browbeaten Sessions in public, but Sessions rode out those humiliations.
Trump has been angry about the Russia investigation (“Witch Hunt!”) since it began. He seems to see his interactions with Russia, or to want us to see those interactions, as normal business practice. Someone says that they have dirt on your campaign opponent? Who wouldn’t meet with them, even if foreign contributions to campaigns are illegal?
Matthew Whitaker, who will be acting Attorney General until a new one is appointed by the President, has publicly stated his opposition to the Mueller investigation and even to Marbury v. Madison, the early Supreme Court case that established the principle of judicial review.
There is a sense in which all of this is predictable – many people have predicted it for some time, to be followed by the firing of Robert Mueller. But there is a lot that doesn’t entirely hold together. Even Maggie Haberman can’t figure it out.
Trump allies are deeply perplexed by his move against Sessions, given that it all but guarantees an investigation by House judiciary.
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 7, 2018
The conventional analysis is something like this: Trump is guilty of conspiracy against the United States, or obstruction of justice, or perjury, or all three and more. Further, he understands that he and his family are guilty. Mueller continues the attack, and he must be counterattacked, which would start with removing him from his job. Trump bragged to the Russians who visited him in the Oval Office in May 2017 that he had removed James Comey, who had been pursuing Russian connections to the Trump campaign. He would likewise remove Mueller to end the “Witch Hunt.”
But that analysis assumes a particular strategy on Trump’s part: He knows he is guilty and wants to avoid the consequences in a very direct way. Haberman’s perplexity assumes such a strategy. Let’s assume a different motivation on Trump’s part.
David Roberts (@drvox) wrote a thread reminding us of Trump’s toxic narcissism. This summarizes it:
This is what I mean. All this perplexity vanishes once you internalize that Trump is only capable of aggression & escalation. He's not making "choices" or "moves," just acting based on id like always. 100% predictable, 0% perplexing. https://t.co/QfBhKfl86j
— David Roberts (@drvox) November 7, 2018
Put aside whether Trump is worried about being found guilty of anything. His ego has been hurt by Sessions’s failure to act as consigliere. In yesterday’s election, Republicans lost the House, which will complicate Trump’s presidency and, likely, his life. His morning tweets on Wednesday seemed upset, and he handled his news conference badly, seemingly indicating a distraught state of mind.
When a toxic narcissist feels injured, he must injure someone else. So it was time to use the letter Sessions gave him. Whitaker seems to be a Trump loyalist, which comforts Trump that now he has his consigliere. Unless Whitaker recuses himself (and there may be reason to do that), this is likely to calm Trump temporarily.
Trump responds in the moment, and the threshold for his action seems high (tweeting, not so much). Whether Whitaker will undertake action against Mueller on his own is not clear, even with the implicit backing of Trump. Most likely is a passive-aggressive strategy of starving the investigation of funds. As usual, Trump seems not to have anyone lined up to become Attorney General. That is consistent with the impulsive acting out of a narcissistic injury.
Further actions, by this analysis, will depend on injuries to Trump’s ego. Indictments via the Mueller investigation against Trump or his family (Don Jr. is rumored to be close to indictment) would be a great injury and a reason to fire him.
Other things can go wrong for Trump. The coming of a Democratic House and speculations about its actions will constantly irritate. A meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a North Korean representative has been postponed. For any number of reasons, Trump may feel he needs the comfort of firing Mueller. But probably not right away.