Fairfax Library Foundation / Flickr kenneth starr...
Fairfax Library Foundation / Flickr

The Washington Post:

Mr. President, please cut it out. Tweet to your heart’s content, but stop the wildly inappropriate attacks on the attorney general. An honorable man whom I have known since his days as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, Jeff Sessions has recently become your piñata in one of the most outrageous — and profoundly misguided — courses of presidential conduct I have witnessed in five decades in and around the nation’s capital. What you are doing is harmful to your presidency and inimical to our foundational commitment as a free people to the rule of law.

The attorney general is not — and cannot be — the president’s “hockey goalie,” as new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described Sessions’s job. In fact, the president isn’t even his client. To the contrary, the attorney general’s client is ultimately “We the People,” and his fidelity has to be not to the president but to the Constitution and other laws of the United States. Indeed, the attorney general’s job, at times, is to tell the president “no” because of the supervening demands of the law. When it comes to dealing with the nation’s top legal officer, you will do well to check your Twitter weapons at the Oval Office door.

[Kennedy speechwriter Theodore] Sorensen spoke eloquently about the need for the president to have trust in the attorney general but at the same time for the attorney general to remain at arm’s length in providing honest legal guidance to the president.

This represents a paradox. As a member of the president’s Cabinet, the attorney general needs to be a loyal member of the president’s team, yet at the same time he must have the personal integrity and courage to tell the president what the law demands — and what the law will not permit. That’s especially true with respect to enforcing the nation’s criminal laws, and why — rightly — the attorney general needs to step aside on matters where his own independence of judgment has potentially been compromised.

That’s the key to solving the paradox. Independence of judgment, as opposed to blind loyalty, characterizes great attorneys general.

Kenneth Starr is to be greatly commended for making the effort to codify and simplify the role of the attorney general and attempt to explain it to the willful buffoon who is the current occupant of the White House. However, Starr seems to miss a paradox himself here, which if that Trump possessed the basic intellectual curiosity of any of his predecessors, and they ranged from farmers to legal scholars, the explanation would not be needed. Nevertheless, he is to be lauded for trying. 

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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