Attorney General Jeff Sessions has critics, detractors, rivals, backbiters, and saboteursa real enemies list.
Lets see whos on the list: the presidents son-in-law Jared Kushner, Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, conservative funders Charles and David Koch, Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan of the House Freedom Caucus. And thats just some of the prominent Republicans and conservatives.
Here are others: Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont, Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Kamala Harris of California, Representative Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, the marijuana lobby, the mainstream media. Theyre Democrats and liberals who loathe Sessions.
All in all, its a pretty impressive list of people whove clashed with Sessions. But they arent his only problem. Sessions is believed to be hanging on to his job by a thread. President Donald Trump is unhappy with him and leaves the impression hes ready to fire Sessions at any moment. In Washington, job insecurity is a sign of political weakness.
Yet Sessions is anything but weak. Operating from a cramped office in Washington, across Constitution Avenue from the Museum of National History, hes the powerhouse of the Trump administration. Hes highly motivated and audacious. In March, he traveled to California and read its leaders the riot act for refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials. In Washington, hes leaned on two agencies to quit blocking the importation of a death-penalty drug.
Those are but two signs of his political strength. At the Justice Department, hes flipped law enforcement policy on its head. He replaced Obama AG Eric Holders tough-on-police, easy-on-sentencing philosophy with intense support for cops and tough sentencing. Hes puts a higher priority on the welfare of crime victims than that of felonsanother reversal.
Both friends and foes say Sessions has been brilliantly successful. Sessions is almost certainly the single most effective implementer of Trumps vision in the entire administration, David Cole, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in the New York Review of Books. No cabinet member has been more diligent and single-minded in pursuing Trumps policies. Cole made it clear he disagrees with those policies.
Sessions tells me he is only following Trumps clear and simple orders on law enforcement: Reduce crime, support the police, go after transnational criminal organizations. Our goal is not to fill up the jails, he says. Our goal is to enhance public safety in every community in America.
On immigration, he didnt require orders from the White House. As a senator from Alabama for two decades, he sidetracked more immigration reform bills than Trump ever heard of. The president wants a deal letting so-called dreamers remain here legally. Those are the kids who arrived in the United States as infants and children of illegal aliens. Sessions isnt interested. Well see who prevails, Trump or Sessions. The smart money favors Sessions.
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Given the AGs success, will Trump still force him out? Thats highly unlikely. Sessions has a stronger hold on his job than ever. This was unexpected but theres a reason. Things never just happen in Washington.
It started with EPA chief Pruitts desire to be attorney general. With Washington swimming in rumors about the demise of Sessions, Pruitt and his allies spread the word that he was willing and able to be attorney general.
This did not sit well with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, chairman Chuck Grassley of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society. Along with White House counsel Don McGahn and the president, they constitute the cabal committed to filling the top tiers of the federal courts with conservative judges. The Pruitt-for-Sessions scheme threatened their plans. Grassley, by the way, declared last summer he wasnt going to sit through another round of confirmation hearings for an attorney general in this session of Congress.
But with Sessions gone, it would be difficult for Grassley to avoid spending the rest of the year on anything but that. More judges? Forget it. And if Democrats capture the Senate in the midterm elections in November, the chance to confirm more conservative judges would have been frittered away.
But the White House saved the day. Pruitt was told to put a plug in the talk about being AG. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, is said to have delivered the news. Trumps part was to cease abusing Sessions in tweets for having recused himself from the investigation of Russia-Trump collusion. The president went cold turkey for several weeks before indulging in a single nasty tweet.
Still, anti-Sessions sentiment lives on in the Trump family. Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trumps husband, is a supporter of criminal justice reform, which Sessions opposes. Pruitt was Kushners hope for attorney general and possible backer of the reform bill.
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Sessions specializes in speeches to police and law enforcement groups. Aides call them off the shelf speeches since they all make the same points. But Sessionss address to the California Peace Officers Association in Sacramento in March was different.
Since governor Jerry Brown had turned California into a sanctuary state, Sessions had a special message to deliver. Laws had been passed to bar state officials from cooperating with federal immigration enforcers, particularly those who would corral illegal immigrants upon their release from jail. Sessions finds sanctuary cities, much less states, to be offensive. They put immigration agents in danger.
So there is no love lost between Brown and Sessions. When Browns office contacted Sessionss office in the week before his speech, the call was not put through. The day before Sessions arrived in Sacramento, the Justice Department filed suit against California to invalidate its sanctuary laws. And the situation got even less friendly when Sessions delivered his speech. He was loaded for bear.
Immigration law is the province of the federal government, he said. I understand that we have a variety of political opinions out there on immigration. But the law is in the books and its purpose is clear. There is no nullification. There is no secession. Federal law is the supreme law of the land. I would invite any doubters to Gettysburg, and to the graves of John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln.
Sessions is a small, likable man. The Almanac of American Politics describes him as genial but tenacious. Californians saw little of his genial side. California is using every power it hasand some it doesntto frustrate federal law enforcement. So you can be sure Im going to use every power I have to stop them.
He addressed police officers directly. We are going to fight these irrational, unfair, and unconstitutional policies that have been imposed on you and our federal officers, Sessions said. We are fighting to make your jobs safer and to help you reduce crime in America. We are fighting to have a lawful system of immigration that serves Americans. And we intend to win.
The Washington Post said his remarks were notable for their aggressiveness. Brown didnt like them. He said Sessions should apologize for bringing the mendacity of Washington to California.
Kamala Harris didnt like the speech either. I think that Jeff Sessions in particular should understand when he starts evoking Civil War comparisons its going to be interpreted as highly offensive, and if I were him, Id avoid making Civil War comparisons, she said.
This wasnt the first time Harris expressed differences with Sessions. In her first year in the Senate in 2017, she attracted attention by repeatedly interrupting a witness at a committee hearing. Its an old tactic designed to prevent someone from delivering coherent testimony. Virginia senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clintons running mate, tried it on Mike Pence, Trumps veep candidate, in the vice presidential debate in 2016. He was merely irritating.
When Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Harris tried to disrupt him. She kept cutting in, cutting in, cutting in, a Republican aide said. Harris didnt stop until Senator John McCain of Arizona intervened. Let him answer the question, he said. This worked.
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For a Southerner, Jeff Sessions, 71, has an unconventional view of Lincoln. He didnt understand just how unconventional it is until he was preparing for a Lincoln Day speech at the Union League of Philadelphia on February 12.
I just sat down on Sunday afternoon and wrote some personal reflections on Lincoln and the republic, Sessions says. Probably most of it I just wrote up based on what I was thinking about the subject.
I asked him about one sentence in the speech that intrigued me. Id never heard the sentiment before, at least from a Southerner, and it turned out Sessions hadnt eitherthat is, until he wrote it and then spoke it. This is what he said: If it is ones fate to lose a brutal war, one must feel fortunate indeed to have lost it to the noble Abraham Lincoln.
Sessions told me hed never heard anybody express that. It just came to me as I was laying down my thoughts about what to say to the Union League Club. . . . I said a few things Id never thought through. I think that I was correct that although Lincoln led a brutal war to victory, he clearly had a vision for postwar reconciliation that was extraordinary, and the South in losing the war was lucky to lose it to a leader like Lincoln.
In his speech, Sessions offered his overall view of the Civil War without mentioning a Lost Cause:
The thing was brewing from the beginning of the republic. Though many Southerners try to say otherwiseand I love my peopleslavery was the cause of the war. It was not states rights or tariffs or agrarian versus industrial economies. Those issues were solvable and would have been solved. The cloud, the stain of human bondagethe buying and selling of human beingswas the unsolvable problem and was omnipresent from the beginning of the republic. And the failure, the refusal of the South to come to grips with itreally to change the immoral system of enslavementled to the explosion. As to slavery, it had to end. And the nation could stand the disgrace no longer. And Lincoln came.
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It may seem odd that states rights is a hot topic in the Trump era, but the issue is busting out everywhere. Its also odd that Jeff Sessions, a man from south Alabama, is not the champion of states rights but the leading opponent. Hes for the feds over Californias protectors of illegal immigrants. He sounds like Andrew Jackson in 1832 when Jackson declared, the Constitution of the United States . . . forms a union, not a league. Jackson denied states the right to nullify federal laws.
Which leads us to the fight between Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Sessions. The question is whose laws should have authority over marijuana. Sessions, like Jackson, says federal power is supreme. Gardner says the state should be in charge and was, until Sessions got involved.
In 2012, Colorado legalized the recreational use of marijuana, though a federal law that made such use a crime was still on the books. A conflict was avoided by the Cole Memorandumnamed for Obamas deputy attorney general who wrote itthat promised the federal statute would not be enforced in Colorado.
Sessions withdrew the memo. Gardner promptly retaliated. He put a hold on nominees for assistant secretary posts in the Justice Department. Gardner has since released the assistant secretary for national security, but the others are out in the cold, their nominations stalled indefinitely. There the matter lingers, as negotiations move along quietly.
Gardner says the federal government should respect the will of the states who have spoken overwhelmingly on this issue. His allies call him a fighter for states rights. And in this struggle, he is.
The Cole memo winked at marijuana, allowing it to be sold and consumed freely while federal authorities acted as if nothing suspicious was going on. But Sessions says hes not empowered to do that. Federal law is not abrogated if a state changes its law, Sessions says. The attorney general is not able to withdraw federal laws. I cant direct our people not to enforce the law and wont do so. And hes not the sort to wink.
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Sessions is not an alarmist, but he is inclined to alert the country to what he regards as growing dangers. A month ago, he focused on national injunctions, which allow a local federal district judge to hand down rulings that affect the entire nation. The most egregious example occurred in Chicago, where a single judge ruled the federal government couldnt halt grants to sanctuary cities or states anywhere in America.
In a speech in Washington, Sessions talked about this problem. He didnt mince words. In truth, this is a question of raw power, he said. Sessions was mistaken if he was expecting press coverage. He got practically none.
Maybe it was his speaking partly in legalese that discouraged the press. Today, in effect, single district court judges are going beyond proper adjudicative bounds and making themselves super-legislators for the entire United States, he said. That means that each of 600 federal district judges . . . can enjoin a law or regulation throughout the countryregardless of whether the other 599 disagree.
This is a new phenomenon unheard of until the 1960s and its use is exploding. Thats because its a way to target President Trump. All thats needed is one resistance judge, and a Trump initiative can be blocked. Anti-Trump judges are easy to find, especially in West Coast states and Hawaii.
Its really a dangerous trend, Sessions said on Hugh Hewitts radio show. President Obama was hit 10 times with these sweeping injunctions. Were now at 22, he said, in Trumps first year. Sometimes I think [judges] simply want to teach President Trump a lesson, to micromanage his business and make sure they have discovery and lawsuits, and they can pry into everything that was done, Sessions told Hewitt.
Sessions is willing to pursue a cause. And he has the authority to do exactly that. Unlike former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, hes not obligated to represent the president and his views and to be diplomatic. The attorney general can act on his own without asking for Trumps permission or representing his thinking. Its another reason why Tillerson was fired and Sessions hasnt been.
Sessions doesnt balk at feuding with friends. When the Senate Judiciary Committee took up a bill to reduce prison sentences, he complained to Sen. Grassley, the chairman. He said the bill would apply to a highly dangerous class of criminals, including repeat dangerous drug traffickers and those who use firearms, and would apply retroactively to many dangerous felons, regardless of citizenship or immigration status.
Grassley said he was really irritated because he had been a strong defender of Sessions, especially when Trump wanted to fire him. Referring to the letter, I dont think thats something somebody should do to friends, Grassley said.
Siding with Sessions, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said, I call it the jailbreak bill. Cotton has been a close adviser to Sessions since he was a House member in 2013 and 2014. After sweeping immigration reform legislation passed the Senateit would have let illegal immigrants become citizensCotton worked with then-senator Sessions to kill it in the House.
Meanwhile, Sessions has won over Mark Meadows, the head of the House Freedom Caucus. Meadows and Jim Jordan, the groups former chairman, called last winter for Sessions to step down as AG, blaming him for not controlling the FBIs probe of the Trump campaign. Meadows is no longer calling for Sessionss ouster and has kind words for his record at the Justice Department.
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Edwin Meese is Jeff Sessionss favorite attorney general. You shouldnt be surprised. The two men are quite alike, professionally anyway. Meese was a California pal of Ronald Reagan, came with him to Washington, and served as his AG from 1985 to 1988. Meese was never an establishment figure nor a Washington type who hobnobbed with lobbyists, the press, and social hangers-on. Neither is Sessions.
Besides their conservatism, what links them might be called a fighting spirit. Meese was a champion of the rule of law and enemy of judicial overreach, the tendency of judges to act like legislators. And he didnt care what the media, academic experts, or bar association liberals said about him or his causes. Again, Sessions is a match.
Even personally, Meese and Sessions are alikekind but serious men who find lots of unfriendly faces in their paths. This is the fate of conservative attorney generals. Sticking to the limits of the law can be unpopular. Ignoring the limits is often lauded.
Theres one big difference between the twotheir relationship with their president. Meese and Reagan were close friends. If Reagan ever said an unkind word in public about Meese, I dont recall it. If Trump ever said a kind word about Sessions, he didnt utter it recently.
That Sessions has succeeded in this hostile environment is what makes his tenure as attorney general so remarkable and admirable.