How Long Can the Trump Tumult Go On?

July 27, 2017

Even for this dramatic administration, the past seven days have been extraordinary. Start a week ago Wednesday, when President Trump said Attorney General Jeff Sessions “should have never recused himself” from the investigation of Russian electoral meddling, calling the recusal “very unfair.” These comments were followed by the unlikely rumor that the Trump legal team would go after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s staff, along with more-plausible suggestions that the president might fire Mr. Mueller.

On Friday, Mr. Trump appointed New York financier Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director, prompting press secretary Sean Spicer to resign. This all sparked speculation about the standing of chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon, both of whom allegedly opposed hiring Mr. Scaramucci.

Then on Monday, a Senate panel interviewed White House senior adviser Jared Kushner about a July 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer. That meeting was organized by Donald Trump Jr., who had received an email saying Russian officials possessed “documents and information that would incriminate Hillary.” Young Mr. Trump was told this “very high level and sensitive information” was “part of Russia and its government’s support” for his father.

The following day, the president renewed his attacks on his attorney general, tweeting that Mr. Sessions had taken “a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!” Later, during a Rose Garden presser, Mr. Trump lamented that he was “very disappointed in Jeff Sessions.”

During this swirl of events, Team Trump portrayed Mr. Scaramucci’s appointment as a major reset, saying the president was his administration’s best communicator and that he would benefit from delivering more of his message directly. But this is a misdiagnosis of what ails the administration’s public relations. The president’s job-performance rating has dropped from an even 44% approval and disapproval on Jan. 27 to 40% approval and 55% disapproval this Wednesday, according to the RealClearPolitics average. Mr. Trump’s ratings are sliding because of his own messages and actions, not those of his subordinates.

In addition, although Mr. Scaramucci is an effective, personable advocate for Mr. Trump, his ultimate value must come from planning and executing a coherent communications strategy that results in a disciplined message and advances the president’s agenda. This requires working with the entire White House leadership, the rest of the administration, congressional Republicans and outside allies. It can be done only with consultation, thoughtfulness, collegiality and constant thinking ahead. The communications director’s job is complicated even in normal presidencies, which this isn’t.

One of Mr. Scaramucci’s strengths is his relationship with Mr. Trump. He can assist the president most by using his influence to help Mr. Trump resist his worst impulses. The president could demonstrate that this isn’t an impossible hope by ending his public humiliation of Mr. Sessions, which is unfair, unjustified, unseemly and stupid.

Mr. Trump should consider how ugly the next six months will be if he continues attacking Mr. Sessions. If he fires the attorney general, the president will guarantee that every other message is buried under bad press as he deals with the fallout and searches for an acceptable replacement. Senate Democrats would spend months tormenting that person during confirmation proceedings, and even Republican senators would raise tough questions. If Mr. Trump instead makes a recess appointment, a crisis will ensue.

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For the record, Justice Department rules require Mr. Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation that touches the Trump campaign. Those rules—required by federal law—dictate that no Justice official “shall participate” in an investigation “if he has a personal or political relationship with . . . any person or organization substantially involved . . . that is the subject of the investigation.” This is why then-Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself after the Valerie Plame incident. (I was involved in the matter and had previously been Mr. Ashcroft’s campaign consultant.)

Mr. Sessions, a decent and principled man, is doing his best to further the Trump agenda and restore the Justice Department’s tattered reputation. That the president is publicly shaming him, heedless of the damage it’s causing, shows just how vindictive, impulsive and shortsighted Mr. Trump can be.

This past tumultuous week should wake up the president and all those around him. If Mr. Trump continues this self-destructive behavior, he will drown out his message and maybe even blast his presidency to bits before his first year in office is even out.

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