Donald Trump hasn’t been shy in recent weeks about publicly slamming his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, mocking him as “very weak.” Asked whether Sessions would remain at his post, the president was recently non-committal, saying only that “time will tell.”
And yet, new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly reached out to the attorney general directly over the weekend, reassuring Sessions that his position is safe, Trump’s rhetoric notwithstanding.
We don’t know exactly how Kelly put it, but given the circumstances, it’s likely the retired general told Sessions not to worry too much about what the president says. As CNBC’s John Harwood wrote yesterday, there’s a lot of this going around.
Increasingly, federal officials are deciding to simply ignore President Donald Trump.
As stunning as that sounds, fresh evidence arrives every day of the government treating the man elected to lead it as someone talking mostly to himself.
On Tuesday alone, the commandant of the Coast Guard announced he will “not break faith” with transgender service members despite Trump’s statement that they could no longer serve. Fellow Republicans in the Senate moved ahead with other business despite the president’s insistence that they return to repealing Obamacare. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “we certainly don’t blame the Chinese” for North Korea’s nuclear program after Trump claimed, “China could easily solve this problem.” And Vice President Mike Pence said the president and Congress speak in a “unified voice” on a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill Trump has signed, but not publicly embraced.
Harwood noted a recent LawFare piece from Jack Goldsmith, a top Justice Department official in the Bush/Cheney administration, who wrote, “What is most remarkable is the extent to which his senior officials act as if Trump were not the chief executive. Never has a president been so regularly ignored or contradicted by his own officials…. The President is a figurehead who barks out positions and desires, but his senior subordinates carry on with different commitments.”
This isn’t limited to the executive branch. Trump is ostensibly the head of the Republican Party, in addition to being president, working with like-minded allies who control Congress, but on Capitol Hill, GOP leaders also treat Trump’s directives as instructions that are easily ignored.
Trump recently insisted, for example, that the Senate hold no votes, on anything, until it passes a health care bill the White House approves of. Almost immediately thereafter, Senate Republican leaders said they were moving on from health care and scheduled a series of unrelated votes.
Similarly, at a White House event two weeks ago, Trump told Senate Republicans that, as far as he’s concerned, they shouldn’t leave D.C. until the party’s health care efforts come to a successful conclusion. This week, GOP senators decided to wrap up their work early and leave town for a multi-week break.
There was a time – say, before Jan. 20 of this year – when the words of a sitting president of the United States carried real weight, especially among those who serve in his administration and with his partisan allies. But increasingly, as Trump flails, his presidency shrinks, to the point that much of the government finds it more convenient to just ignore the amateur in the Oval Office, who doesn’t really know what he’s doing anyway.
It’s like we’re watching a president become a lame duck just six months after his inauguration.