WASHINGTON ― In his first few weeks on the job, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been remaking the Justice Department to his liking, steering it away from the Obama administration’s progressive stance on civil rights issues and preparing to crack down on what he sees as a rise in crime.
Then came Wednesday night’s news that Sessions failed to disclose his discussions with the Russian ambassador before the election ― contacts that would be very relevant to an ongoing investigation he oversees as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Now, as the embattled attorney general recuses himself from the investigation into contacts he and members of the Trump campaign had with Russian officials and some in Congress demand his resignation, Sessions’ future as the 84th attorney general of the United States is in question.
There’s no indication so far that Sessions will quit, and his decision Thursday to recuse himself from investigations connected to Trump’s presidential campaign will likely allay the concerns of many Republicans. Sessions was one of Donald Trump’s earliest supporters during the campaign, and the president said Thursday he has total confidence in his attorney general. His announcement removes him from supervision of the multi-agency investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, and Russia’s involvement in the election.
“I have decided to recuse myself from any existing or further investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States,” Sessions said Thursday.
Sessions does not yet have a confirmed deputy, so removing himself from Russia-related probes raises the question of who would oversee the investigations. U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, the top federal prosecutor in Maryland, has been nominated as Sessions’ deputy attorney general, and will surely be asked about the probe at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, slated for Tuesday. Even if all goes well, it would likely be a few weeks before Rosenstein is on the job.
For now, according to DOJ, Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente will oversee investigations from which Sessions recused himself.
Thursday’s dramatic press conference marked a big shift from just a few days ago, when Sessions was laying out his plans for his Justice Department. “We want to reinvigorate our department from top to bottom,” he told reporters the other day, adding that he sees DOJ as “the leading advocate for law enforcement in America.”
Since Sessions was confirmed in early February, his DOJ has rescinded guidance that protected transgender students; reversed an Obama-era effort to curtail the government’s use of private prisons; and retreated from the position that a Texas voter ID law purposefully discriminates against black and Hispanic voters.
A court hearing in the Texas voter ID case took place the same day Sessions delivered a speech honoring Black History Month.
During the Obama administration, such events typically took place in the Justice Department’s cavernous Great Hall, where the first and second black attorneys general spoke to diverse crowds about the progress they were making on civil rights. (It was during Eric Holder’s first Black History Month event as attorney general that he said the U.S. had been a “nation of cowards” on race; a CNN writeup of his remarks noted an “overflow crowd” in the massive room.)
Sessions’ speech took place in a much smaller venue on Tuesday ― a conference room that held fewer than 100 people (the same venue he used for his Thursday press conference).
Sessions, the son of a segregationist who was named for two Confederate officials, faced accusations of racism that derailed his judicial nomination 30 years ago. In his speech, he reflected on the “raw discrimination” he witnessed growing up in southern Alabama. Though he largely referenced discrimination as a thing of the past, Sessions said there was “much to be done” and “real reconciliation” must go “beyond law” and touch the “heart and the soul.” He called on Justice Department employees to do their jobs “in a way that builds harmony, unity and justice.”
Earlier that morning, Sessions signaled that the Justice Department would “pull back” from what are known as “pattern-or-practice investigations” of police departments, which target widespread constitutional abuses. The Obama Justice Department used this tool to force local law enforcement agencies to reform policing practices. Sessions conceded, in response to a question from The Huffington Post on Monday, that he had not actually read reports from high-profile DOJ investigations into troubled police departments across the country. But he dismissed them as “anecdotal” and not “scientifically based.”
While the issue of criminal justice reform has gained bipartisan traction in recent years, including support from many high-profile conservatives, Sessions’ views on criminal justice don’t appear to have changed much since 1993, when he left the job of top federal prosecutor in Alabama. He may rescind a 2013 memo issued by Holder, which gave federal prosecutors discretion not to pursue the most serious charge against certain federal defendants, which had previously been Justice Department policy.
Criminal justice reform advocates and the cannabis industry are watching how Sessions addresses state-level legalization of marijuana. Sessions has long opposed marijuana legalization, and this week he tied the industry to violence.
Justice reform advocates also are interested in how the Sessions DOJ approaches drug prosecutions and mandatory-minimum sentences. Sessions indicated to reporters on Monday that he was dismayed that average federal sentences were shorter, and that fewer federal drug cases were being prosecuted ― statistics that had been touted by the Obama administration as evidence of the Justice Department’s reformed approach to criminal justice. Sessions praised Project Exile, a program from the 1990s that targeted weapons-possessing ex-felons, locking them away in federal prisons often located far from their homes for lengthy prison terms. (Politicians from both parties have praised the approach, but some civil rights advocates said it disproportionately affected African-Americans.)
Overall crime rates remain at historic lows ― a fact mentioned in Sessions’ prepared remarks before the National Association of Attorneys General on Tuesday, but omitted from the comments he ended up delivering. Sessions said he believes a recent year-to-year uptick in crime isn’t an aberration.
“Nobody knows, but my judgement is this is not a blip,” Sessions said this week. “Something is happening out there, and we’re seeing, I’m afraid, a longer-term trend, or crime and violent crime going up, which is not what we want in America.”
Sessions has had time for a bit of redecorating at DOJ. In his 5th floor conference room, he has hung portraits of four previous Republican attorneys general: William Smith, Edwin Meese, William Barr, and Michael Mukasey.
The sole portrait of a Republican hanging on the wall during the administrations of Holder and Loretta Lynch was of Elliot Richardson, who resigned as President Richard Nixon’s attorney general rather than obey the president’s order to fire a special prosecutor. Richardson’s portrait has since been removed.