We’ve now seen the Mueller report, and there will be a lot of finger-pointing on both sides. But what’s clear is how the last two years have degraded American politics and tarnished nearly everyone connected to the scandal. Was there one person who acted throughout with perfect integrity? My answer might surprise you.
It wasn’t Robert Mueller, even if no one can fault him for dishonesty. What he showed, however, is that honesty is not enough, that an incorruptible prosecutor may still be unjust when he lacks a sense of fairness. With the charges of lying to the FBI, the threats of charging your relatives, the dead-of-night police raids, the Mueller team showed how dangerous prosecutorial discretion can be.
It wasn’t the media, which cheered Mueller on and led him to think he was doing God’s work. It wasn’t the talk-show host who put Stephen Miller’s head on a spike, or the comedienne who held up the bloody head of a decapitated Trump, or Hillary Clinton who announced she had joined the “resistance.” It wasn’t the formerly respected newspapers that indulged in baseless conspiracy theories.
It wasn’t the FBI or the CIA whose agents took salacious information procured by one political party and used it to prompt an investigation of the hated candidate of the other party.
It wasn’t Donald Trump, who ordered his White House counsel to fire Mueller. Attorney General Bill Barr concluded that this didn’t amount to obstruction of justice because Trump knew he was innocent of collusion. That’s a fair point, but you can see why Mueller left open the question of obstruction.
No, it wasn’t any of them. One of the very few people to come out of this looking good is Jeff Sessions.
Trump faulted Sessions for agreeing to become the attorney general and then recusing himself over the Russia probe. But he nominated Sessions as attorney general in November 2016, well before the Russia probe began. And it was an obvious choice. Sessions was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former Alabama attorney general. He was also the first senator to support Trump.
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He became an important member of the Trump campaign, and contributed to the foreign policy speech Trump gave in April 2016. That was the speech in which Trump announced that he sought a reset with Russia. And that was why Sessions felt compelled to recuse himself from the Russia investigation a year later.
It wasn’t about ho-hum encounters he had with the Russian ambassador. It was because, had there been collusion or conspiracy between the campaign and the Russians, he would likely have known about it. Sessions told Trump he was compelled to recuse himself, and he was right.
Sessions’ recusal was the little tap that launched the Mueller probe. So if you’re angered by it, you might be tempted to blame Sessions, as Trump has done.
If, on the other hand, you knew there was no collusion, as Sessions did, you’d have recognized there was little to fear from the investigation, that it was the only way in which Trump could be cleared and that it was an invitation for Trump’s opponents to reveal their mindless and bitter meanness. Without the Mueller report, where would Trump be today?
One puzzle remains. Why did Sessions remain as attorney general until last November, when Trump fired him? During all that time he was publicly ridiculed by his boss, who clearly despised him. He knew that Trump wanted him to resign but remained on the job. I’m not quitting, he said. You’ll have to fire me.
We’d have well understood had Sessions said,“take this job and shove it.” But we should be grateful to Sessions for not doing so.
While he remained as AG, Sessions continued to do important work as our chief law enforcer. More importantly, he made it unlikely that Trump would fire Mueller while Sessions remained on the job.
Had Trump fired Mueller, and had Sessions resigned over this, we’d have seen another Saturday Night Massacre, like the one in 1973 when Nixon asked Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Rather than do so, Richardson resigned, as Nixon was forced to do 10 months later.
Gratitude isn’t a word that comes to mind when one thinks of Trump. But no one better defended his administration than Jeff Sessions. Historians will record that he held the country together, and he’s someone to whom we all owe our thanks.
F.H. Buckley is the author of “The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed.”
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