More Dangerous Than Trump
Tangled in self-inflicted chaos, President Donald Trump has been unable to accomplish much during his first four months in office. His signature executive orders have been stymied by the courts; his legislative efforts have stalled; and now he faces a special counsel investigating him over the Russia affair. But Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is another story. Even amid the scandal of the firing of FBI director James Comey—an action in which Sessions himself had a central part—Sessions has quietly continued the radical remaking of the Justice Department he began when he took the job.
On May 20, Sessions completed his first hundred days as attorney general. His record thus far shows a determined effort to dismantle the Justice Department’s protections of civil rights and civil liberties. Reversing course from the Obama Justice Department on virtually every front, he is seeking to return us not just to the pre-Obama era but to the pre-civil-rights era. We should have seen it coming; many of his actions show a clear continuity with his earlier record as a senator and state attorney general.
Sessions has been especially focused, and particularly retrograde, on criminal justice. In the Senate, he was to the right of most of his own party, and led the charge to oppose a bipartisan bill, cosponsored by Republicans Charles Grassley and Mike Lee, that would have eliminated mandatory minimums and reduced sentences for some drug crimes. As attorney general, he has rescinded Eric Holder’s directive to federal prosecutors to reserve the harshest criminal charges for the worst offenders. Sessions has instead mandated that the prosecutors pursue the most serious possible charge in every case. Prosecutors ordinarily have wide latitude in deciding how to charge a suspect—they can select any of a number of possible crimes to charge, decline to pursue charges altogether, or support a diversion program in which the suspect avoids any charges if he successfully completes treatment or probation. Not all crimes warrant the same response, and prosecutorial discretion makes considered justice possible. Yet Sessions has ordered prosecutors to pursue a one-size-fits-all strategy, seeking the harshest possible penalty regardless of the circumstances.
At the same time, Sessions has promised to reduce the Justice Department’s critical oversight of policing. Under previous administrations of both parties, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has responded to reports of systemic police abuse in cities like Los Angeles, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Chicago, Baltimore, and Ferguson by investigating, reporting, and entering “consent decrees”—court-enforceable agreements with local police departments—designed to reduce or eliminate abuse. Before his confirmation, Sessions condemned such consent decrees as “dangerous” and an “end run around the democratic process.” As attorney general, he has ordered a review of all such decrees, expressing concern that they might harm “officer morale,” about which he seems to care more than about the constitutional rights of citizens. In April, Justice Department lawyers voiced skepticism about and sought to delay court approval of a consent decree that had been fully negotiated and agreed to by the city of Baltimore and the Justice Department before Sessions became attorney general. The court rejected the Justice Department request and enforced the consent decree. But such decrees require active monitoring by the Justice Department, and given the attorney general’s outspoken opposition to these agreements, no one should expect him to live up to that responsibility.