Ses­sions con­tin­ues El Sal­vador gang work

AG touches on Trump crit­i­cism

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - SADIE GURMAN

SAN SAL­VADOR, El Sal­vador — U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, af­ter en­dur­ing a week of pub­lic be­lit­tling from the pres­i­dent, forged ahead Thurs­day by open­ing a mis­sion in El Sal­vador to step up in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion against the vi­o­lent street gang MS-13.

Ses­sions ar­rived in San Sal­vador for a se­ries of meet­ings with law en­force­ment of­fi­cials about a transna­tional anti- gang task force tar­get­ing MS-13. He met with his Sal­vado­ran coun­ter­part and planned to meet with an ex-gang mem­ber and tour a prison.

Back in Wash­ing­ton, law­mak­ers sized up the fall­out over a week of pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion lobbed at Ses­sions by Don­ald Trump, even as the White House sug­gested the pres­i­dent prefers that his at­tor­ney gen­eral stay on the job.

U.S. Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., said Thurs­day that there would be “holy hell” to pay if Trump were to fire Ses­sions, a for­mer Alabama sen­a­tor and early Trump sup­porter.

Ses­sions said in an in­ter­view Thurs­day in El Sal­vador that Trump has ev­ery right to find an­other at­tor­ney gen­eral. “I serve at the plea­sure of the pres­i­dent,”

he said. “I’ve un­der­stood that from the day I took the job.”

In Congress, Sen. Ben Sasse, R- Neb., went to the Se­nate floor Thurs­day to dis­cour­age Trump from mak­ing a so-called re­cess ap­point­ment while the Se­nate is away at the end of Au­gust — should that be the pres­i­dent’s in­ten­tion. A re­cess ap­point­ment would al­low Trump to ap­point any­one of his choos­ing and by­pass Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion un­til 2019 if the Se­nate re­cesses for 10 days or more in Au­gust.

“If you’re think­ing of mak­ing a re­cess ap­point­ment to push out the at­tor­ney gen­eral, for­get about it,” Sasse said. “The pres­i­dency isn’t a bull, and this coun­try isn’t a china shop.”

The pre­vi­ous evening, the Repub­li­can chair­man of the Se­nate Judiciary Com­mit­tee, Charles Grass­ley of Iowa, tweeted that he wouldn’t be hold­ing a con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for a new at­tor­ney gen­eral if Trump de­cided to go that route.

The com­mit­tee’s agenda is set for the rest of 2017, he tweeted, adding: “AG no way.”

Ses­sions said he was “thrilled” with the sup­port he’s re­ceived.

“I be­lieve we are run­ning a great Depart­ment of Jus­tice,” he said. “I be­lieve with great con­fi­dence that I un­der­stand what is needed in the Depart­ment of Jus­tice and what Pres­i­dent Trump wants. I share his agenda.”

He ac­knowl­edged that “it hasn’t been my best week … for my re­la­tion­ship with the pres­i­dent.” The two have not spo­ken re­cently, he said. “But I look for­ward to the op­por­tu­nity to chat with him about it.”

As the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion tries to build sup­port for its crack­down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, it has in­creas­ingly sought to make the MS-13 gang, an in­ter­na­tional crim­i­nal en­ter­prise, the face of the prob­lem. Re­cent killings tied to its mem­bers have stoked the U.S. de­bate on im­mi­gra­tion.

Trump praised Ses­sions when Ses­sions an­nounced his mis­sion to erad­i­cate the gang in April. But the at­tor­ney gen­eral has since fallen out of fa­vor with his one­time po­lit­i­cal ally.

Over the past sev­eral days, Trump has said he rued his de­ci­sion to choose Ses­sions for his Cab­i­net. Trump’s in­ten­si­fy­ing crit­i­cism has fu­eled spec­u­la­tion that the at­tor­ney gen­eral may step down even if the pres­i­dent stops short of fir­ing him. But Ses­sions is show­ing no out­ward signs that he is plan­ning to quit, and on Wed­nes­day, White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said Trump still “wants him to lead the depart­ment.”

In San Sal­vador, Ses­sions

met his Sal­vado­ran coun­ter­part, Dou­glas Me­len­dez, and con­grat­u­lated him on charges filed over the past two days against more than 700 gang mem­bers, many of them from MS-13, the Jus­tice Depart­ment said.

He also met mem­bers of an in­ter­na­tional anti- gang task force at an event where an FBI agent de­scribed MS-13 as a highly co­or­di­nated and well-or­ga­nized gang whose im­pris­oned lead­ers or­der vi­o­lence in the U.S. from their pris­ons in El Sal­vador.

MS-13 has tens of thou­sands of mem­bers in sev­eral Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries and many U. S. states. The gang orig­i­nated in im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties in Los An­ge­les in the 1980s, then en­trenched it­self in Cen­tral Amer­ica when its lead­ers were de­ported.

MS-13 is known for hack­ing and stab­bing vic­tims with ma­chetes, drug deal­ing, pros­ti­tu­tion and other rack­ets. Its re­cruits are mid­dle- and high­school stu­dents pre­dom­i­nantly in im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties, and those who try to leave risk vi­o­lent retri­bu­tion, law en­force­ment of­fi­cials have said.

Its mem­bers have been ac­cused in a spate of blood­shed that in­cluded the slay­ings of four young men in a Long Is­land, N.Y., park and the killing of a sus­pected ri­val gang in­side a deli. The vi­o­lence has drawn at­ten­tion from mem­bers of Congress and Trump, who has boasted about ef­forts to ar­rest and de­port MS-13 mem­bers across the United States.

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials be­lieve some of the re­cent vi­o­lence has been di­rected by mem­bers of the gang im­pris­oned in El Sal­vador.

Of­fi­cials in El Sal­vador, as well as Gu­atemala and Hon­duras, have ex­pressed con­cern about in­creased de­por­ta­tions of the gang­sters back to their coun­tries. Transna­tional gangs such as MS-13 al­ready are blamed for stag­ger­ing vi­o­lence in those so-called North­ern Tri­an­gle coun­tries.

Both Trump and Ses­sions have blamed Pres­i­dent Barack Obama-era bor­der poli­cies for al­low­ing the gang’s ranks to flour­ish in the U.S., though the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion took steps to tar­get the gang’s fi­nances. Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors have gone af­ter MS-13 be­fore but say they’ve re­cently seen a resur­gence.

Thurs­day’s trip was planned be­fore Trump’s broad­sides against his at­tor­ney gen­eral, and it re­mains to be seen whether his work in El Sal­vador will help mend their frac­tured re­la­tion­ship. Their shared view that il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion was among the na­tion’s most vex­ing prob­lems united Ses­sions and Trump.

AP/PABLO MAR­TINEZ MON­SI­VAIS

U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions walks past a cell Thurs­day dur­ing a tour of a po­lice sta­tion and de­ten­tion cen­ter in San Sal­vador, El Sal­vador.

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