Our graceless president

WASHINGTON — With friends like President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions needs no enemies. The man who appointed Sessions to run his critical Department of Justice has rewarded him for his fawning loyalty with public humiliation that only magnifies Sessions’ own need for public approbation.

Trump’s biting chastisement of the former Alabama senator, the first of that fraternity to endorse his presidential candidacy, pulled off the difficult trick of smearing Sessions and himself at the same time.

By castigating the eager attorney general for rightly recusing himself from the department’s investigation into the Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election, Trump has again demonstrated that he is motivated solely by self-aggrandizement and self-preservation. He transparently fears the probing by special counsel Robert Mueller will inevitably entangle him — a fate that he seems to think might have been avoided had Sessions remained in charge of all aspects of the department.

Trump’s surprising observation in a New York Times interview that had he known Sessions would recuse himself in the case, he never would have nominated him to be attorney general, was a ridiculous comment. At the time of that decision, it wasn’t clear there would be any substantial grounds for Sessions to step aside. He had denied any disqualifying connections with the Russians or the election meddling.

Sessions’ eventual recusal bumped responsibility in the case at the Justice Department to his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, whose appointment of Mueller as special counsel carried a broad mandate to ferret out any criminal aspects of what Trump was dismissing as “that Russian thing.”

After Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on the allegation of incompetence in running the top federal investigative agency, speculation grew that Trump’s next self-protecting steps would be to fire Rosenstein and Mueller as well, which presumably would thus kill the Russian investigation and pave the way for nomination of another Trump patsy of the Sessions ilk.

But longtime federal prosecutor Sessions, who finally had reached the apex of lawyerly ambition, was holding on as attorney general like grim death. Instead of bowing out as any faithful Trump underling might have been expected to do, he defied the great man and dug in, saying, “I am totally confident that we can continue to run the office in an effective way.”

It was a very rare example of a timid mouse holding his ground, at least temporarily, in the face of a fierce tomcat. Such acts of resistance in Trumpland were unheard of. The president’s first response was to lawyer up with his own separate pack of highly paid legal eagles, of the sort who have always run interference for him in the courts in his tangled web of major real-estate deals.

The Washington Post has now run a long account of that Trump legal mobilization, said to be poised to challenge Mueller’s handling of the Russian interference and possible extension into the president’s private business empire. He repeatedly has refused to disclose his income tax returns, which might shed light on possible defiance of the Constitutional prohibition against accepting foreign emoluments.

One obvious Trump fear is that Mueller will be able to pry open those Trump income tax returns he has flatly declined to release as presidential candidate and now Oval Office occupant. His personal lawyers are said by the Post to be poised to argue that his private business deals should have no place in the federal investigation into the Russian elections meddling.

In any event, Jeff Sessions clings to his job as Trump’s top government lawyer, with the Trump political operation already in over its head trying to run this country’s affairs at home and abroad. And now, with the president appearing to rely on outside legal help to extricate him from further serious difficulties, the presidency is turning out to be a lot more than he ever counted on in venturing out of his comfort zone as an autocratic American Caesar to become the nation’s top public servant.