For Ses­sions, be­ing AG is chance to make mark

The Sentinel-Record - - FRONT PAGE - SADIE GURMAN

SAN SAL­VADOR, El Sal­vador — Amer­ica’s top law en­force­ment of­fi­cer wan­dered through a Sal­vado­ran jail, siz­ing up the tat­tooed gang mem­bers who sat with their backs to him on the con­crete floors of their cells. His soft voice was barely au­di­ble over the down­pour pelt­ing the tin roof as he spoke to the lo­cal po­lice.

In the midst of a week when his role — and fu­ture — in Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s Cab­i­net was in se­ri­ous doubt, U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions could be found thou­sands of miles away from Wash­ing­ton, sur­rounded by con­certina wire and sol­diers with ri­fles. Be­lit­tled by his boss back home, he vowed not to loosen his grip on the job that he loves.

For Ses­sions, lead­ing the Jus­tice Depart­ment is an op­por­tu­nity to make tan­gi­ble progress on is­sues he long cham­pi­oned, some­times in iso­la­tion among fel­low Repub­li­cans, dur­ing two decades in the U.S. Se­nate: hard-line im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies and ag­gres­sive pros­e­cu­tions of gangs, drugs and gun crime. His pri­or­i­ties mark a de­par­ture for a depart­ment that, dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­creas­ingly fo­cused on pre­vent­ing high-tech at­tacks from abroad, white-col­lar crime and the threat of home­grown vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism.

Yet Ses­sions’ pol­icy fo­cus is of­ten over­shad­owed by the ex­pand­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Trump cam­paign ties to Rus­sia. Ses­sions, whose own cam­paign con­tacts with Rus­sia’s am­bas­sador to the U.S. have been ques­tioned, has stepped aside from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. That un­nerved Trump, who sub­jected his at­tor­ney gen­eral to al­most daily pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion this past week.

Ses­sions was try­ing to weather the storm in San Sal­vador, where on a balmy af­ter­noon his at­ten­tion turned to the no­to­ri­ously bru­tal street gang MS-13, whose vi­o­lence in the U.S. has be­come a fo­cal point in the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate. Here was the for­mer Alabama se­na­tor, trav­el­ing El Sal­vador’s streets in a mo­tor­cade along­side lead­ers of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s crim­i­nal di­vi­sion, buoyed by re­as­sur­ances from con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans in Wash­ing­ton af­ter Trump’s tirade.

The trip was planned be­fore the firestorm, but Ses­sions hoped his work on MS-13 would help mend his tat­tered re­la­tion­ship with Trump.

“It hasn’t been my best week for my re­la­tion­ship with the pres­i­dent,” Ses­sions told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “But I be­lieve with great con­fi­dence

that I un­der­stand what’s needed in the Depart­ment of Jus­tice and what Pres­i­dent Trump wants. I share his agenda.”

Ses­sions cut his teeth as a fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor in Mo­bile, Alabama, at the height of the drug war, an ex­pe­ri­ence that has shaped his ap­proach to run­ning the Jus­tice Depart­ment. Al­le­ga­tions of racially charged re­marks cost him a fed­eral judge­ship, but he went onto be­come the state’s at­tor­ney gen­eral.

He was elected to the Se­nate in 1996 and de­vel­oped a will­ing­ness to break with fel­low Repub­li­cans in ways that some­times left him on the side­lines.

He fought against ef­forts to over­haul the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem last year, a rare area where con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­als had found unity. He also was a lead­ing op­po­nent of the 2013 bi­par­ti­san bill that sought to ease im­mi­gra­tion re­stric­tions.

That is­sue drew him to Trump. Ses­sions was the first se­na­tor to en­dorse the busi­ness­man-turned-politi­cian. Trump re­warded that sup­port by nam­ing Ses­sions as at­tor­ney gen­eral. It was, Ses­sions has said, a job that “goes be­yond any­thing that I would have ever imag­ined for my­self.”

“In the Se­nate, you get paid for your words. But in the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, every now and then you can ac­tu­ally take ac­tion and set pri­or­i­ties and see it ac­tu­ally take ef­fect,” Ses­sions told AP in an in­ter­view from in­side the head­quar­ters of Poli­cia Na­cional Civil, El Sal­vador’s po­lice force, where he had gone to build rap­port with the com­mis­sioner. “It’s kind of a real ad­just­ment. I was a fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor for 12, 14 years, re­ally. This is com­ing home to the Depart­ment of Jus­tice I so much loved and still do. You can make things hap­pen in the Depart­ment of Jus­tice.”

In mov­ing quickly to put his own stamp on the Jus­tice Depart­ment, Ses­sions con­tin­ues to find him­self at odds with both Democrats and mem­bers of his own party.

His de­ci­sion this month to re­vive a pro­gram that lets lo­cal Amer­i­can po­lice seize cash and prop­erty with fed­eral help prompted re­buke from con­ser­va­tive groups such as the Koch-backed Free­dom Part­ners, which called it “un­just and un­con­sti­tu­tional.”

Ses­sions told fed­eral prose­cu­tors to pur­sue the tough­est charges against most sus­pects, a move that crit­ics as­sailed as a re­vival of costly drug-fight­ing poli­cies. He wants a crack­down on mar­i­juana as a grow­ing num­ber of states work to le­gal­ize it. His es­ca­lat­ing threats to with­hold money from cities that refuse to co­op­er­ate with im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties have made city lead­ers only more de­fi­ant.

Ti­mothy Hea­phy, a for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney for the West­ern Dis­trict of Vir­ginia who served un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, said the fast pace of Ses­sions’ changes is dis­turb­ing.

“He came in clearly with an agenda to go back in time to a tough-on-crime and law-and-or­der ap­proach,” Hea­phy said. “He’s ig­nor­ing all the progress we made.”

Dur­ing his fi­nal years in the Se­nate, Ses­sions be­gan to gain greater no­tice from the far-right. He was a fa­vorite of Bre­it­bart, the web­site pre­vi­ously run by Steve Ban­non, who now serves as Trump’s se­nior ad­viser. Other Ses­sions’ aides also serve in top ad­min­is­tra­tion posts, in­clud­ing Stephen Miller, the ar­chi­tect of sev­eral of Trump’s im­mi­gra­tion pro­pos­als.

Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Pa­tri­ots, said Ses­sions has a “war­rior spirit” and is work­ing on be­half of peo­ple whose voices haven’t al­ways been heard in Congress.

“He has had to take on bat­tles be­fore within his own party and against the op­po­si­tion party, and he takes those on and he fights them,” she said.

The As­so­ci­ated Press

SES­SIONS DIGS IN: U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions looks at a cell Thurs­day dur­ing a tour of lo­cal po­lice sta­tion and de­ten­tion cen­ter in San Sal­vador, El Sal­vador.

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