On Monday, President Donald Trump angrily lashed out at the Justice Department for defending the weaker second version of his immigration ban. This was odd, because Trump himself signed the executive order promulgating that revised version, which was ostensibly designed to address the court's concerns about the first — objections the White House itself said it hoped to address.
But it turns out Trump's anger at the Justice Department has a deeper source: rage at Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The New York Times reports on what's at the root of it:
"He has intermittently fumed for months over Mr. Sessions's decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in last year's election, according to people close to Mr. Trump who insisted on anonymity to describe internal conversations. In Mr. Trump's view, they said, it was that recusal that eventually led to the appointment of a special counsel who took over the investigation."
Trump appears worryingly unable to contemplate his own role in bringing about the special counsel. The firing of FBI Director James Comey led to reports that Trump allegedly demanded Comey's loyalty and to Trump's admission that he fired Comey over the Russia probe. This revealed the Justice Department's memo providing Trump his initial rationale for the firing (Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton probe) was bogus. Which led to the special counsel.
Beyond this, though, note this: Trump's seething anger at Sessions is disconcertingly similar to the anger that led him to fire Comey. As the Times previously reported, Trump privately "burned" as he watched Comey testify to Congress about Russia's efforts to tip the election to Trump, and was "particularly irked" when Comey conceded his own intervention, via a letter about Clinton's emails, may have influenced the outcome, which Trump "took to demean his own role in history." The Post added that Trump was "infuriated" at the FBI's failure to investigate and stop leaks, which have led to news accounts detailing what the Russia probe was finding.
Both Comey and Sessions enraged Trump because in some manner or other, they failed to show a level of loyalty to Trump that would have trumped (as it were) legitimate processes. Comey kept publicly validating the Russia investigation (which Trump dismisses as nothing but Fake News) and would not make it disappear by stopping leaks about it. Sessions recused himself to display (nominal) independence, which Trump somehow interpreted as a lapse into weakness that led to the special counsel, further affirming the probe's weightiness.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University who writes extensively on authoritarianism and Italian fascism, told me that a discernible trait of autocratic rulers is "frustration" with the "inability to make others do their bidding" and with "institutional and bureaucratic procedures and checks and balances."
"Trump doesn't respect democratic procedure and finds it to be something that gets in his way," Ben-Ghiat said. "The blaming of others is very typical of autocrats, because they have difficulty listening to a reality that doesn't coincide with their version of it. It's part of the authoritarian temperament to blame others when things aren't working."
Trump expects independent officials "to behave according to personal loyalty, as opposed to following the rules," added Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University who wrote "On Tyranny," a book of lessons from the 20th century. "For Trump, that is how the world is supposed to work. Trump doesn't understand that in the world there might truly be laws and rules that constrain a leader."
Snyder noted that authoritarian tendencies often go hand in hand with impatience at such constraints. "You have to have morality and a set of institutions that escape the normal balance of administrative practice," Snyder said. "You have to be able to lie all the time. You have to have people around you who tell you how wonderful you are all the time. You have to have institutions which don't follow the law and instead follow some kind of law of loyalty."
It seems obvious that early worries about an unbound authoritarian Trump — fears that our institutions would not hold up or that Trump would bulldoze them — now look overblown. But nonetheless, echoes of these traits do appear present. The nonstop lying appears designed to obliterate shared agreement on the legitimate institutional role of the news media in holding Trump accountable to some semblance of shared truth and reality. Many of those lies exaggerate the significance of his electoral victory: There's the claim that Trump would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal voters; the buffoonish efforts to inflate his inaugural crowd sizes; and the assertion that Barack Obama wiretapped his phones, showing that he, too, had been illicitly targeted during the election.
Trump's underlings must constantly find ever-more-creative ways of propping up those lies: A "vote fraud" commission; press secretary Sean Spicer's assaults on the media for minimizing Trump's crowd sizes; the internal hunt for "evidence" of the Obama wiretap; and so forth. But the Russia probe persists. It plainly nags at Trump because he believes it undercuts his legitimacy. Sessions and Comey have both failed to make it go away. He is reportedly raging about it, and even fired Comey over it. And Comey hasn't even told his side of the story in public yet.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant.