Here's why Trump's feud with Jeff Sessions will backfire

  • President Trump's public humiliation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions is difficult to watch.
  • It also shows poor judgement and management style.
  • Here are the top reasons that Trump should either support his AG or fire him outright and move on.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, and Donald Trump at Madison City Stadium on February 28, 2016 in Madison, Alabama.
Taylor Hill | WireImage | Getty Images
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, and Donald Trump at Madison City Stadium on February 28, 2016 in Madison, Alabama.

Chaos reins in the White House, with the latest bombshell coming from new communications chief Anthony Scaramucci who unleashed a profanity-laced tirade excoriating Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and advisor Steve Bannon in a New Yorker article published on Thursday.

But President Donald Trump's feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions remains a burning issue that could have major ramifications. It is abundantly clear that the president wants Sessions gone. Yet, instead of just firing him the president continues to attack and undermine his attorney general in tweets, interviews and press conferences, calling him "beleaguered" and "VERY weak."

In fact, there have been reports that the president is considering a recess appointment to replace Sessions, which would be a highly controversial move.

Trump's repeated public humiliation of Sessions is difficult to watch. He should decisively support his attorney general or just fire him. Mr. Trump is famous for the catchphrase "You're fired," but he is strangely hesitant to utter that phrase in this case.

Of course, he may be thinking that outright firing Sessions would be seen as another move to impede an investigation into possible collusion with Russia, especially after his controversial firing of FBI Director James Comey. Sessions' resignation could absolve him of that risk.

However, there are many reasons that the president should discontinue his campaign to hound Sessions out of office.

For one, Trump's shabby treatment of his AG threatens to erode his already weak basis of support, especially among conservatives, something a president with historically-low approval ratings should consider carefully.

Many conservatives voted for Trump in significant part because of Session's early endorsement of him. A swell of support for Sessions from conservative lawmakers, voters and news outlets, including Breitbart, has grown in step with the president's escalating attacks, and that should concern him more than it does. The opposition became more vocal Thursday with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) warning, "If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay,"

The president's agenda is already on thin ice, with Obamacare repeal failing in the Senate in an early morning vote on Friday, little movement on tax reform and an infrastructure plan in limbo. Angering conservatives will not help his cause.

There are other reasons Trump should stand down. Public criticism of employees is rarely a good idea. As my friend and Notre Dame graduate Adam Greenway, a dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wisely advised, "Compliment publicly. Correct privately."

Second, the president 's main criticism of Sessions, that he did not tell him sooner that he would recuse himself from the Russia investigation, is based on a faulty timeline.

The main reason Sessions recused himself was the revelation on March 1 that he had met with the Russian ambassador twice during the presidential campaign, contradicting his statement during a Judiciary Committee hearing on January 10th that he had not met with any Russian officials.

So Trump is criticizing Sessions for not telling him in January that he would do something he did not know he would do until March. That makes as much sense as a passenger on the sinking Titanic saying "I would not have boarded had you told me we were going to hit an iceberg."

Thirdly, dismissing an employee is fair only when you have clear performance expectations, tell the employee when he or she is falling short of those expectations, and work with the employee to improve his or her performance. Firings should be a last resort when those efforts fail.

Sessions is obviously trying to improve his performance. The president said Tuesday that Sessions needs to be "much tougher" on leaks from the intelligence community, and multiple news reports indicate that Sessions will soon announce more aggressive efforts to investigate the leaks. But the president seems unwilling to give Sessions any credit for such efforts.

The president is also handling the situation poorly because he is talking about Sessions but not to him. Communications director Anthony Scaramucci has urged the president to sit down and talk with Sessions to iron out their issues and that would be a good idea, but it has not happened.

A final reason the president should stop backstabbing Sessions is that his apparent attempt to force Sessions to resign is undermining the morale and effectiveness of government workers. The Washington Post reported Tuesday, for example, that Justice Department employees say the president's comments are damaging the reputation and morale of the department.

The president's treatment of Sessions also hampers the administration's efforts to fill many key positions that remain vacant, and that should be filled during the early months of the administration when it has the best opportunity to advance its agenda.

Boarding the good ship Trump at this point is an increasingly risky proposition. In a May CNBC article, Steven Billet, from George Washington University's Graduate School of Public Management offered this sobering assessment: "They won't be able to attract the most talented people in Washington, D.C. Nobody in their right mind would jump into this White House at this point."

The president's prolonged and vicious public humiliation of the first Senator to endorse him will certainly not help recruitment efforts.

Firing employees is one of the most difficult tasks facing managers and leaders, but when necessary it can be done right if it is done with fairness and compassion. Trump has demonstrated neither of those qualities in his harsh treatment of Sessions. He has also failed to demonstrate loyalty, a quality that he insists on from others but has failed to show one of his most loyal soldiers.

Commentary by Joseph Holt, a business ethics professor at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. Follow him on Twitter @busethicsdude.

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