Trump at­tacks over­shad­ow­ing Ses­sions’ hard-line record as AG

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - NATION - By Eric Tucker As­so­ci­ated Press

At­tor­ney WASH­ING­TON — Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions has vig­or­ously pushed Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s agenda at the Jus­tice Depart­ment, and be­fore that, spent 20 years cham­pi­oning con­ser­va­tive causes in the Se­nate.

Yet as Ses­sions en­ters what may be the fi­nal stretch of his ten­ure, those ef­forts are at risk of be­ing eclipsed by his boss’ re­lent­less ver­bal jabs that have made the at­tor­ney gen­eral seem like a per­pet­ual pres­i­den­tial punch­ing bag. It’s a role Ses­sions never sought but per­haps could have an­tic­i­pated.

The steady di­a­tribes, most re­cently a tweet ex­co­ri­at­ing Ses­sions for the fed­eral in­dict­ments of two Repub­li­can con­gress­men, re­flect Trump’s sin­gle-minded out­rage over the spe­cial coun­sel’s Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and are all the more strik­ing be­cause Ses­sions is the Cab­i­net mem­ber most clearly aligned with Trump’s val­ues.

The treat­ment has largely over­shad­owed the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s work on vi­o­lent crime, il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and opi­oid ad­dic­tion, cloud­ing a legacy that in other times would be more broadly cheered in con­ser­va­tive cir­cles.

“There are folks that ask me con­stantly, ‘What’s wrong with Ses­sions?’” said for­mer Cincin­nati Mayor Ken Black­well, a long­time friend who says the crit­i­cism is “erod­ing what other­wise would be a very re­spectable port­fo­lio.”

“The punches that he throws in Ses­sions’ di­rec­tion are land­ing and they’re dis­tort­ing the track record,” Black­well added, “and they’re hav­ing peo­ple start to ques­tion not just his loy­alty to the pres­i­dent but his com­pe­tency — when his record is a very suc­cess­ful record and could be com­pared to any other Cab­i­net sec­re­tary.”

Ses­sions has mostly ab­sorbed the blows qui­etly while march­ing through a tough-on-crime agenda, bring­ing to the job the same hard-line prin­ci­ples that once placed him far to the right of many other GOP se­na­tors.

He has en­cour­aged more ag­gres­sive mar­i­juana en­force­ment, di­rected prose­cu­tors to bring the most se­ri­ous charges they can prove, an­nounced a zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy for im­mi­grants cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally and tar­geted the MS-13 gang. He also has alarmed his crit­ics, who fear he has de­graded civil rights pro­tec­tions by not de­fend­ing af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, po­lice re­form or trans­gen­der le­gal rights.

But nei­ther Ses­sions’ work nor his loy­alty seems to res­onate with Trump. The pres­i­dent has be­lit­tled his at­tor­ney gen­eral since Ses­sions stepped aside from an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into ties be­tween Trump’s 2016 cam­paign and Rus­sia. Trump in­ter­preted the move, which le­gal ex­perts said was in­evitable given Ses­sions’ cam­paign sup­port, as an act of dis­loy­alty that led to spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s ap­point­ment.

Trump has said if he had known Ses­sions would take that step, he would not have picked the Alabama Repub­li­can to be at­tor­ney gen­eral. The pres­i­dent now as­serts that Ses­sions never has had con­trol of the depart­ment, and ac­cuses Ses­sions of fail­ing to ag­gres­sively pur­sue Trump’s po­lit­i­cal ri­vals and to in­ves­ti­gate po­ten­tial bias in the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Trump told Bloomberg News last week that Ses­sions’ job was safe through the Novem­ber elec­tion. The pres­i­dent gave no re­as­sur­ances about af­ter that. Mean­while, the solid Repub­li­can sup­port in the Se­nate that has buffered Ses­sions is show­ing signs of crack­ing.

The most re­cent broad­side Mon­day, about the charges against the two GOP law­mak­ers, was stun­ning for its norm-shat­ter­ing oblit­er­a­tion of the bright line be­tween the White House and Jus­tice Depart­ment. Trump said the in­dict­ments, com­ing be­fore an elec­tion when con­trol of Congress is at stake, had left “two easy wins now in doubt.” He ended the tweet with a sar­cas­tic “Good job Jeff.”

“You’re ha­rass­ing the at­tor­ney gen­eral for not deal­ing with po­lit­i­cal bias at the DO J and then con­versely ac­cus­ing him of not en­gag­ing in po­lit­i­cal bias at the DO J,” said Cameron Smith, a for­mer Ses­sions coun­sel in the Se­nate. “Those can­not both be si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­sis­tent po­si­tions.”

Ses­sions didn’t re­spond to that crit­i­cism, though in the past he’s is­sued statements say­ing the depart­ment won’t bend to po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions and promis­ing to serve with in­tegrity and honor. His only men­tions of Trump are lauda­tory, and in public ap­pear­ances, Ses­sions is far more likely to fo­cus on the work that has im­pas­sioned him for decades than on the con­tro­ver­sies around him.

The crit­i­cism has cre­ated an un­usual dy­namic where Trump-aligned Repub­li­cans who or­di­nar­ily would praise Ses­sions are join­ing in the con­dem­na­tion, while pro­gres­sives op­posed to his agenda fear that his fir­ing for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons could desta­bi­lize democ­racy.

Vanita Gupta, the Jus­tice Depart­ment civil rights chief in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, said she be­lieved Ses­sions was ter­ri­ble for civil rights but she did not want him dis­missed as a means of crip­pling Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“It isn’t about pro­tect­ing Jeff Ses­sions,” Gupta said. “It’s about pro­tect­ing the no­tion that no­body is above the law in this coun­try and that the Con­sti­tu­tion ap­plies to ev­ery­body.”

DAN AN­DER­SON / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions speaks Fri­day at the ded­i­ca­tion of a new fed­eral court­house in Mo­bile, Ala. Ses­sions is a for­mer U.S. sen­a­tor from Alabama.

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