Sessions continues El Salvador gang work
AG touches on Trump criticism
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.
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.