Sessions pushes forward in storm.
The Justice Department has had perhaps the roughest ride of any Cabinet branch during the first 100 days of the Trump administration, facing hostile judges who have blocked the president’s immigration plans, the ouster of the acting attorney general and even accusations of racism leveled against Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing for attorney general.
But the department, working arm in arm with the Department of Homeland Security, also has covered the most ground when it comes to implementing the administration’s priorities. Mr. Sessions has been able to reverse course on Obama-era policies, including deploying more immigration judges to the border and prioritizing prosecutions of illegal immigrants who commit crimes in order to speed up deportations, stepping back from use of court-enforced agreements meant to guide local police reforms, and rescinding orders that would have phased out the federal government’s use of private prisons.
“Jeff Sessions may have inherited the most difficult period of any modern attorney general,” said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. “But I think General Sessions has tried to bring some greater stability and order to the department.”
To observers of the Sessions Justice Department, one of the most notable changes has been the shift in how officials talk about violent crime. Though crime rates remain at near historic lows, Mr. Sessions and Mr. Trump have voiced concern about a growing crime wave — pointing to increases in violent crime and homicides in some major cities in 2015 and the first half of 2016. Campaign promises to restore “law and order” have in turn led to calls for crackdowns on drug cartels and illegal immigration.
“A lot of it has been laying the foundation for things to come — the way the administration talks about crime and talks about drugs,” said Ames Grawert, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice Program. “That’s a big shift in rhetoric. What we have seen is using that fear and idea of a crime wave … to try to justify what the administration wants to do in rolling back some Obama-era criminal justice policies.”
That has included a more heavyhanded approach to dealing with immigration crimes. During his first visit to the U.S.-Mexico border as attorney general in April, Mr. Sessions touted the deployment of 25 immigration judges to the border to help reduce the backlog of deportation cases and plans to hire 125 more. He has also instructed prosecutors to prioritize charges against illegal immigrants with histories of illegally crossing the border into the U.S. and threatened to cut federal funding from jurisdictions with “sanctuary” policies that hamper cooperation with federal immigration agents.
Other efforts are seen as more symbolic. Three early executive orders issued by Mr. Trump are meant to “reduce crime and restore public safety.” Though they include few concrete policy changes, Mr. Grawert said, the orders give the attorney general carte blanche to chart a new path forward on criminal justice policy.
Where rhetoric has translated into action, opponents of Mr. Trump’s policies said the Justice Department has forecast a discouraging path forward when it comes to civil rights.
“The Department of Justice has moved with disturbing speed to reverse many of the positions it took during the prior administration,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Case in point, she said, was the Justice Department’s announcement of a systemwide review of active investigations of troubled law enforcement agencies and its attempt to scuttle approval of a court-stipulated agreement to reform the Baltimore Police Department.
A federal judge ultimately signed off on the Obama administration-brokered agreement, a move supported by the city’s mayor and police commissioner. But civil rights advocates worry that efforts to reform of troubled agencies and prosecute officers who will grind to a halt under Mr. Sessions.
The reception hasn’t been all bad though, as the nation’s largest police union views the commitment to reevaluate whether timely and often costly consent decrees are the best solutions.
“We are very much heartened and encouraged by the initiatives thus far and hope he is able to build momentum,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. “He may come at it from a more conservative perspective, but that’s what makes the world go ’round.”
Analysts say part of what has made Mr. Sessions effective at the head of the department is his predictability. The policies he is pursuing are the same he has spent years advocating during his time in the Senate and as a U.S. attorney.
“If you had to pick someone to implement a law-and-order agenda and know what he was doing and be dedicated to the tough-on-crime rhetoric, it’s Jeff Sessions,” Mr. Grawert said. “He had an idea of what he wanted to do going in, so it’s less surprising he was able to do so much of it in the first 100 days.”
Other changes include rescinding of an Obama-era memo that would have ended the government’s use of private prisons, something activists read as a signal that more beds will be needed to house an impending increase in the number of people behind bars. The Justice Department also reversed its yearslong federal support for a legal challenge to Texas’ toughest-in-the-nation voter identification law, an “astonishing” about-face for the groups that previously argued alongside the department, Ms. Ifill said.
One area that has proved to be a stumbling block for the Justice Department has been its defense of some of Mr. Trump’s most controversial executive orders, including the temporary ban on refugee resettlement and travel by foreign nationals to the U.S. from six majority Muslim countries. The first and second versions of the order were met with a flurry of lawsuits brought by immigrant and civil liberties advocates. Justice Department lawyers were tasked with defending the first order even before Mr. Sessions was sworn in, but since his confirmation they have been unable to persuade federal judges to let the revised version of the order to go into effect.
The swell of resistance during Mr. Trump’s first months in office may have slowed the rollout of other proposals, particularly a plan to handle the medical and recreational marijuana industries, observers say.
Mr. Sessions has long made clear that he opposes marijuana legalization and believes the drug is dangerous. He has repeated these positions numerous times since taking the helm at the Justice Department.
“It is somewhat surprising to see General Sessions raise the issue of marijuana so forcefully. His department is already stretched fairly thin across several fronts from immigration to sanctuary cities,” Mr. Turley said.
Support for medical and recreational marijuana legalization is polling high, even in states Mr. Trump won. Legal markets are reaping billions of dollars in revenue, and Republicans are supportive of states’ rights.
Repealing Obama-era policies that allowed the markets to develop and prosper could become a quagmire for the administration. To continue with the forward momentum on policy priorities, Mr. Sessions might be better advised to look the other way on marijuana for now and dedicate Justice Department resources to the battles it is currently fighting rather than creating new fronts, Mr. Turley said.
“To throw marijuana policies into that mix could undermine all of these efforts,” Mr. Turley said. “You can’t go to war with everyone.”