Sessions' agenda at DOJ reflects Trump's, despite rocky relationship
Posted December 29, 2017 4:26 p.m. EST
Updated January 5, 2018 6:21 p.m. EST
(CNN) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the Cabinet member who's borne the brunt of President Donald Trump's criticism over the past year. Blamed by the President as the origin of the special counsel's Russia probe, Sessions has been on the end of Twitter barbs and private dress-downs alike. The "beleaguered" attorney general -- as the President has called him -- even offered to resign after heated exchanges, sources told CNN in June.
But as he's stuck to his post atop the Justice Department, Sessions has pushed forward the President's agenda in a way perhaps no other agency head has.
Since his swearing-in last February, Sessions has enacted sweeping change, prioritizing "tough on crime" policies that, he says, are "restoring the rule of law." In appearances across the country, Sessions has shifted the spotlight to questions of immigration and concerns of crime. He's dismantled a progressive legacy left behind by Obama-era DOJ initiatives and shepherded new Trump directives through the courts. When the Trump administration made the decision to roll back the DACA program, it was Sessions who stood on stage alone.
"It is the honor of a lifetime to serve as the attorney general of the United States," Sessions told his former Senate colleagues in an October hearing. It's also been a year not short of controversy.
Over the last year, we have seen key developments at the 2017 Department of Justice (outside of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian election meddling):
Crime and punishment
It's a theme the attorney general emphasizes regularly in speeches across the country: A recent uptick in the national rate of violent crime is not a "blip." Since assuming the role of the nation's top law enforcement officer, Sessions has taken aim at rising crime, bringing the key thrust of his tenure on tour. In visits to more than a third of the nation's 93 US attorney's offices, he's sat with the families of victims and praised local police and prosecutors. He's also regularly used stark rhetoric and grisly descriptions to sound the alarm, such as a young father in Toledo who was "beaten to death in front of his four-year-old" and Memphis families who "live every day as hostages."
Indeed, the 3.4 percent increase in the US violent crime rate between 2015 and 2016 was the largest single-year jump in 25 years, according to the latest FBI statistics. While critics of the administration are quick to point out that today's rate remains drastically lower than past peaks, an upward trend is apparent: The US homicide rate increased by nearly 8 percent last year, driving an increase of violent crime in the country for the second year in a row.
Sessions has fought back with a targeted law enforcement approach. In an October memo, he directed all US attorneys to implement new violent crime reduction strategies as part of the renewed DOJ program Project Safe Neighborhoods. The "centerpiece of our crime reduction strategy," as Sessions has called it, Project Safe Neighborhoods emphasizes data collection and focused policing of the worst criminal offenders. To bolster the program, Sessions announced in December the addition of 40 new assistant US attorneys to hard-hit districts across the country. Sessions has also called for prioritized firearm prosecutions, leading to a nearly 23 percent increase in the cases from 2016 to 2017, the DOJ said in July.
As he's beefed up law enforcement tools, Sessions has extended the "law and order" administration to the courtroom, raising hackles from criminal justice advocates. In late December, Sessions announced the repeal of a guidance document that cautioned judges against the burdensome enforcement of fines for indigent criminal offenders. And in May, Sessions told prosecutors to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense" against criminal suspects, upending an Obama era push to phase out long prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
"The Trump administration is returning to archaic and deeply-flawed policies," Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center's Justice Program, said at the time.
Sessions has also brought attention to the country's opioid crisis to the forefront of the DOJ in 2017. "We know that drugs and crime go hand in hand. They just do, the facts prove that so," he often says in speeches.
In the closing months of 2017, Sessions launched task forces and funneled millions in new grant funding to disrupt the manufacturing and distribution of illegal opioids in the US and abroad. Sessions has long been an outspoken critic of marijuana -- he once called the drug "only slightly less awful" than heroin. Just after the new year, Sessions -- who has called for a "rational" marijuana policy -- abandoned the hands-off approach adopted under the previous administration in favor of unleashing federal prosecutors across the country to decide individually how to prioritize resources to crack down on pot possession, distribution and cultivation in states where it is legal. In a written statement Thursday, Sessions called the shift a "return to the rule of law" but he did not go as far as some advocates had feared he might, stopping short of explicitly directing more prosecutions, resources or other efforts to take down the industry as a whole.
The divisive issue of immigration in the country has made its way into the front of discussions of national security in Sessions' DOJ. While not mainstream political targets under the last administration, immigration flashpoints like MS-13 and sanctuary cities have earned large shares of fire from Sessions' DOJ.
MS-13, the first street gang to be labeled a transnational criminal organization by the government, has earned outsized focus this year. Known as an especially violent gang, the group is smaller than other gangs in the country, and experts have called Sessions' attention to it lopsided. In visits this year to Long Island, New York, where the gang is blamed for several murders, and to El Salvador, where its leaders are based, Sessions has spotlighted the gang's brutality and cross-border connections, often calling for ramped up border security in the same breath. In October, Sessions designated the gang a priority for enforcement by specialized drug task forces, and in November, the DOJ in coordination with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced the arrest of 214 gang members across the country.
Sessions also raised eyebrows this month when he joined the Homeland Security secretary to pin blame on immigration policies for allowing two terror suspects into the country. "As yesterday's events showed us in the starkest terms: the failures of our immigration system are a national security issue" Sessions said in Baltimore, the day after a 27-year-old green card holder originally from Bangladesh attempted to explode a device in the New York City subway.
The suspect, Akayed Ullah, came to the US from Bangladesh in 2011 on a visa for children of siblings of US citizens, DHS has said. Criminal charging documents for Ullah, however, indicate federal authorities traced the beginning of his radicalization to "at least approximately 2014" -- three years after he came to the United States.
Sanctuary cities too have become a particular bogeyman for the administration. Trump first seized on the issue in the campaign after the death of Kate Steinle, a San Francisco woman who authorities say was shot by an undocumented immigrant who had been previously released from jail under the city's detention policies. In a round of letters sent last month, the DOJ threatened to withhold certain grants from jurisdictions it considers to be sanctuary cities -- areas that limit cooperation with immigration officials to detain individuals. Similar measures have faced trouble in the courts, though, as some of the country's biggest cities, led by liberal mayors like Chicago's Rahm Emanuel, have pushed back. Attempts by the DOJ to force local police to comply with federal requests also may contrast the partnership approach taken in crime reduction efforts.
The DOJ has sought in court -- with mixed success -- to salvage another of the President's signature agenda items: the travel ban. Now on its third iteration, the ban on travel from eight nations, considered a Muslim ban by critics, is currently underway after a Supreme Court order this month allowed its enforcement while challenges to the merits continue to make their way through the legal system.
Sessions advocates for following "the law as written," noting that it is "what our Constitution demands" in an October speech at the Heritage Foundation. This strict reading of the Constitution has prompted Sessions' DOJ to roll back some of the guidance concerning civil rights the Obama Administration had previously issued. Sessions explained this end of regulation by guidance, saying the DOJ "will not use guidance documents to circumvent the rulemaking process, and we will proactively work to rescind existing guidance that goes too far." This has also led to the DOJ's vigorous defense of religious liberty.
Transgender rights have been front and center in the push and pull of Sessions' DOJ. Sessions has directed his Civil Rights Division to crack down on hate crimes, including against transgender victims, and sent one of its top civil rights attorneys to Iowa in October to help convict a man charged with killing a transgender teen last year.
But that move came in the wake of the withdrawal of several DOJ directives that appeared to lessen protections for transgender people. In February, the Justice Department withdrew guidance from Obama-era Attorney General Loretta Lynch which had instructed schools receiving federal funds that they must not discriminate against a student based on gender identity. The rollback means public schools are no longer obligated to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. Further, in October, Sessions formally determined that a 1964 federal civil rights law, Title VII, does not protect transgender workers from employment discrimination, once again upending previous guidelines issued under Obama.
Sessions explained the reversal by pointing to the text of Title VII and its prohibition of employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, with no specific mention of gender identity. Sessions said at the time: "This is a conclusion of law, not policy." DOJ Spokesman Devin O'Malley further explained: "The [DOJ] cannot expand the law beyond what Congress has provided....and will continue to enforce the numerous laws that Congress has enacted that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
But advocates of equal rights for members of the transgender community blasted the move. "According to Sessions, an employer is free to hang a 'Transgender Need Not Apply' sign in their window. Fortunately, he is dead wrong on the law," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
So far, the DOJ has been on the losing end in the courts in its battle to defend the President's August memorandum directing the Secretary of Defense to bar transgender Americans from military service. Federal appeals courts have blocked key provisions of the order, and have refused to delay a January 1 deadline that will allow processing of new transgender applicants. The DOJ has argued that challenges to the President's memorandum are premature since the Department of Defense is still reviewing the President's order. In preparation for that January deadline, the Pentagon has issued new guidance regarding how transgender individuals will be admitted.
Sessions has also put defending religious liberty at the forefront of his department's agenda. In October, Sessions issued a 25-page memo to administrative agencies bolstering protections for people of faith and rolling back employers' requirement for birth-control coverage. But in December, federal judges in California and Pennsylvania have issued preliminary injunctions to block the Trump administration's rule that makes it easier for employers to deny contraceptive coverage on religious or moral grounds. The DOJ said it disagreed with the rulings and is considering next steps.
The Justice Department also took sides in the prominent Masterpiece Cakeshop case that went before the Supreme Court this fall. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the DOJ urged the court to side with the cake shop owner Jack Phillips. Phillips considers his cakes artistic expressions, and argues that any law requiring him to create custom-made wedding cakes for same-sex couples violates his right to freedom of speech and his free exercise of religion. A ruling from the Supreme Court on the case is expected sometime this spring.
On voting rights, the Justice Department reversed the federal government's position in two key cases -- one in Ohio and one in Texas. In Ohio, the DOJ's solicitor general sided with the state that purging voters from the rolls who did not vote over a six-year period or answer mailings confirming they wanted to stay registered, was legal under federal law. In Texas, the DOJ asked a federal district court to dismiss a claim filed by President Obama's Justice Department that an ID law there was enacted with the intent to discriminate against minorities. The Sessions' DOJ pointed to the fact that Texas changed its voting law in May, after a district court judge had twice ruled it didn't pass legal muster.
The DOJ investigates itself into 2018
Amid calls for more investigations by the President and several Republican members of Congress, Sessions has initiated multiple reviews, in addition to a probe launched separately by the DOJ Inspector General. Michael Horowitz announced in January he would review broad allegations of misconduct involving then-FBI Director James Comey and how he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server. Comey cleared Clinton of any criminal wrongdoing at the height of campaign in July 2016. Horowitz promised his own probe would be wide-ranging, and would include Comey's various letters and statements, as well as whether FBI or other Justice Department employees leaked information.
Republican members of Congress, however, want more, and they're pressing for a second Special Counsel. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, listed the matters he wanted investigated in letters to Sessions this summer, including: the actions of former FBI Director James Comey, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Goodlatte also insisted this second special counsel must investigate the sale of Uranium One to Russia's state atomic energy company in 2010, which has been questioned recently by Republicans since Clinton's State Department was one of nine agencies that approved the sale.
Sessions has so far resisted these calls for a special counsel, telling Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in mid-November that it would take "a factual basis that meets the standard of a special counsel" for an appointment to happen. However, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd soon after sent a letter to Judiciary Committee Chair Goodlatte explaining that Sessions had directed senior federal prosecutors to look into the matters Goodlatte raised in his letters, and "whether any matters merit the appointment of a Special Counsel."
In late December, Sessions ordered a review of Project Cassandra, an Obama-era DEA initiative targeting the pro-Iranian militant group Hezbollah's alleged drug trafficking operations in the United States and abroad. A detailed Politico report uncovered allegations that a series of drug prosecutions tied to Hezbollah were abandoned at the same time the Obama administration worked to strike a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Sessions declared: "We will review these matters and give full support to investigations of violent drug trafficking organizations."
The Justice Department also says it is conducting 27 investigations into leaks of classified information from intelligence agencies, with the Attorney General telling the House Oversight Committee in mid-November: "We intend to get to the bottom of these leaks." For some perspective, the Obama-era DOJ investigated three leaks per year, while the Trump-era DOJ has announced nearly 30 in its first year.
This story has been updated.