To all appearances President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have a cordial and professional working relationship. This is in spite of the intermittent abuse directed by our commander in chief at the first elected official of any standing to have endorsed his presidential campaign, the adviser who did more than anyone, with the possible exception of Stephen Bannon, to forge from the raw material of American angst and nostalgia the would-be flaming sword of universal Trumpism.
On Thursday it was reported that Trump had instructed Sessions to consider prosecuting the manufacturers of opioids. This order was given during a Cabinet meeting and received in the most accommodating manner by our country's foremost law enforcement officer. There was no griping, no backbiting, no making of excuses. "We absolutely will," Sessions replied when the president added that he would also like to see indictments brought against Chinese corporations involved with the distribution of fentanyl in the United States.
For more than a year, indeed since virtually the first days of his presidency, Trump has subtly and not so subtly complained about Sessions' decision to recuse himself from any involvement in the Russian investigation. The attorney general's refusal to reverse course and end the investigation unilaterally is easy to understand, not least because it is entirely in Trump's best interests and his own. If, as looks increasingly likely, the president is unlikely to be charged with anything graver than obstruction of justice, no good can come of making the case for Mueller by literally obstructing it. All of this has no doubt been explained to the president on various occasions, which has not prevented him from lashing out every few days on Twitter or in speeches. Nor has Trump been alone in his criticism of the attorney general. Two weeks ago Jerry Falwell Jr. unburdened himself of the opinion that Sessions might be a "phony":
Strangely @jeffsessions appeared unannounced at @LibertyU the night before the 2016 election on a bus tour. I told students but could get almost none of them to come hear him. Could it be our students were the first to see he was a phony pretending to be pro- @realDonaldTrump ?
— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) August 2, 2018
It is difficult to imagine Sessions getting worked up about any of this. For someone with the reputation of a far-right ideologue, he has always been remarkably pragmatic. He is not an enthusiast or a speechifier. He did not embarrass himself during the Tea Party vacation from sanity that was most of the Obama administration. Instead he quietly used his knowledge of the legislative process to defeat viable legislation to which he objected, such as the "Gang of Eight" immigration reform package.
Sessions is not interested in rhetoric or show-boating but in restricting immigration and taking a hard line on drugs. At some level he understands that the grumbling, the insults, the ill-advised schemes, and ludicrous demands from the president can safely be ignored in service of these goals. "Scared stiff," "weak," not a "real attorney general"? He has been called worse in his time. It would seem to be the case that he has intuited something that most of his colleagues — to say nothing of the American people — have not: namely, that it is sometimes, indeed frequently, a good idea not to take the president seriously.
When to humor the whims of the sovereign, when to nod and smile blandly, when to say, quietly but with perfect firmness, that something simply cannot be done: This is the art of the courtier. The person who manages to survive and even to flourish under the patronage of an intemperate ruler is the one who understands how to distinguish between caprice and imperative and how to bear abuse lightly. It is the immortal wisdom of "Up to a point, Lord Copper."
Sessions is the most devoted of our emperor's servants precisely because he has nothing in common with the rest of them. He is neither a scheming amoral hanger-on like so many members of this administration, current and former, or a stolidly disinterested public servant like James Mattis, the defense secretary whom one could imagine resigning in the face of serious policy disagreements — to say nothing of insults to his personal honor along the lines of those to which Sessions has been repeatedly subjected. The attorney general is a true believer.
As long as he is at liberty to wage a renewed drug war and implement the schemes for restricting immigration of which he and his former deputy Stephen Miller have so long dreamed, Sessions will remain in this White House, brushing the dirt from his shoulders without so much as a smirk.