Introducing ‘The Haymaker,’ Leafly’s Politics & Culture Column. This Week: Sessions Out?Bruce BarcottJune 7, 2017
My phone was buzzing with breaking news alerts here at Leafly World Headquarters yesterday. “Sessions Offered to Quit During Exchange With Trump” said CNN. “Sessions Offered in Recent Months to Resign,” teased the Washington Post.
When the king views disagreement as betrayal, everyone is doomed to eventually betray the king. Even Jeff Sessions.
After nearly six months, we here in the Leafly newsroom have gradually acclimated to Tropical Storm Trump. We don’t shock easy. But this latest turn in the American telenovela elicited a gasp.
When the king views common disagreement as personal betrayal, everyone is doomed to eventually betray the king. Even, apparently, Jeff Sessions—the first senator to endorse Trump, and one of his most loyal surrogates.
This ongoing intrigue would be irrelevant to our world if not for one fact: Attorney General Jeff Sessions exercises inordinate power over the legal cannabis industry. He’s been consistent in his public condemnation of all forms of legalization, even medical marijuana. And he’s signaled that he’s prepared to act on those beliefs.
Recusal = Betrayal
First, the backstory: In March, the attorney general recused himself from the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In any other administration, this would have been a accepted as a prudent move. Sessions is a person of interest in the FBI’s investigation into the matter, having held meetings with the Russian ambassador that he neglected to disclose to the Senate during his confirmation process. The FBI is an agency of the Department of Justice, which is run by Jeff Sessions. A recusal was the only right and decent move here. Sessions, to his credit, made it.
The palace intrigue matters because Sessions holds inordinate power over the cannabis industry.
But Trump apparently took that recusal as a personal betrayal. “The president’s anger has lingered for months,” according to White House sources contacted by the Washington Post. Sessions’ recusal, in Trump’s eyes, was the move that opened the door for the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller, who is now overseeing the DOJ’s Russia investigation.
It’s become increasingly apparent that President Trump believes the nation’s top law enforcement officials should protect him by subverting ongoing federal investigations. When they don’t, he reads it as personal betrayal. That’s why he fired former FBI Director James Comey. That’s why he’s steaming mad at one of his most loyal lieutenants, Jeff Sessions.
‘You’re fired.’ Then What?
Let’s say Sessions gets the boot. It’s not hard to imagine Comey’s long-awaited testimony, scheduled to begin tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. Eastern, throwing President Trump into a tantrum that finds relief only in the utterance of those two most Trumpian words: You’re fired.
And if that happens…
America, meet Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Let’s play this out. If Trump were to fire Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein would immediately step in as acting AG.
He would likely remain Acting Attorney General Rosenstein for the remainder of Trump’s term.
The odds of Trump appointing a new attorney general, and that AG nominee surviving the confirmation process, are slim. I believe the technical Vegas term is “heavy dog.”
Personal loyalty is clearly Trump’s main job requirement. In his written statement sent to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, ex-FBI Director Comey recalled that Trump told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
The number of candidates who possess both credentials for the job and the loyalty card can probably be counted on one hand. Let’s see… Rudy Giuliani. That’s one. Newt Gingrich makes two. Sen. Bob Corker? He and Gingrich aren’t actually lawyers, but that’s not a legal disqualifier. Kris Kobach? Trump is not in the business of partnering with hicks from Kansas. Chris Christie? In polite company Trump is said to believe that Christie does not “look the part,” which is code for saying that the president considers him a fat loser.
Can’t Fill the Posts, or Won’t
The White House has a hard enough time finding candidates to fill the hundreds of jobs that require Congressional confirmation. Of 559 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, Trump has offered no nominee for 441. Not filling positions has been floated as a proactive strategy to shrink the federal bureaucracy, part of Steve Bannon’s plan to “deconstruct the administrative state.” If so, well, bang-up job. But at the same time…
Rosenstein Could Calm the Ship
One of the few officials who has managed to keep his reputation somewhat intact is our man Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein was the one with the cojones to appoint Robert Mueller as the DOJ’s special counsel leading the Russia investigation. Rosenstein reportedly threatened to resign when Trump used him as cover for the James Comey firing. (At the same time: Rosenstein did write the mind-boggling memo that justified Comey’s firing based on Comey’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails.)
If Sessions departs, Rosenstein could solve a lot of problems for Trump simply by running the Justice Department as its Acting Attorney General for the rest of the President’s term. If Trump bumped him up to the head job—which is doubtful, given Trump’s distrust of his personal loyalty—Rosenstein is one of the few who has enough support in the Senate to survive confirmation. In 2005, President George W. Bush appointed Rosenstein as US attorney in Maryland. He proved to be so effective and nonpartisan that President Obama chose to keep him.
All of which points to a likely conclusion: If Rosenstein takes over as acting AG, don’t expect a splashy big-name boss to fill Jeff Sessions’ shoes. It’ll be Rosenstein’s DOJ to run.
Where’s He Stand on Cannabis?
As head of the Justice Department, Rosenstein would likely tone down the rhetoric on cannabis. Sessions considers marijuana legalization a personal affront to his most deeply held values. Rosenstein shows no such inclination.
The war on drugs just isn't Rod Rosenstein's jam.
When he was Maryland’s chief federal prosecutor, Rosenstein directed his office to go after large-scale criminal drug operations. “We have pretty clear guidance from the attorney general to continue to pursue cases involving drug distribution in violation of state law,” he told the Baltimore Sun in late 2013.
The key phrase there is “in violation of state law.” When Maryland’s state legislature passed medical marijuana legalization in 2014, Rosenstein did not stand in the way of progress on the issue. In fact, trying to find any sort of past statement from Rosenstein on cannabis legalization leads to a teeth-gnashing dive into the deeper pools of Google. Prohibition and the war on drugs just aren’t Rosenstein’s jam.
Would that attitude continue if he held the reins of the Justice Department? We may soon be fortunate enough to find out.