WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s campaign against the Mueller investigation ended the tenure of a Cabinet member who ― despite the barrage of attacks from his boss ― had become the most effective member of the Trump administration.
Reporters’ pre-drafted stories about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ potential departure had been sitting on ice for over a year, ever since the president first began blaming Sessions for recusing himself from the Trump-Russia investigation ― one of the string of steps that led to special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment. On Wednesday, many of those stories finally went live, as Sessions announced he had resigned at Trump’s request.
Amid the extraordinary showdown between the president and the nation’s top law enforcement official, it was easy to overlook that the 84th attorney general was actually implementing the Trump agenda.
Critics and supporters alike agreed that Sessions transformed the Department of Justice to reflect the Trump administration’s priorities. A draft version of his master plan for the DOJ emphasized cracking down on national security leaks, targeting the MS-13 gang and restoring the “rule of law” throughout the country. On immigration, he stepped up prosecutions for illegal border crossing, implemented the “zero tolerance” policy that led to family separations, put pressure on immigration judges to speed up cases with new precedents and a quota system, and restricted asylum for victims of domestic violence. He renewed a “tough on crime” approach, rolling back Obama-era sentencing changes, opposing broader sentencing reforms that had bipartisan support, and reversing course on an effort to reduce the DOJ’s use of private prisons. He had the DOJ back away from investigations of policing practices. He constantly praised Trump’s agenda, and he hadn’t gotten swept up in any big ethics probes.
There was just that one big sticking point: Sessions’ refusal to interfere with the ongoing criminal investigation into the Trump campaign that the president repeatedly calls a “witch hunt.”
Trump made very, very clear his frustration with Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation. The president’s unprecedented public attacks on his attorney general ― as “VERY weak,” as a betrayer ― became almost routine.
Sessions’ supporters wished that Trump could see past his frustration with a man who was one of his earliest congressional backers during the 2016 campaign and look at the attorney general’s broader work.
“Jeff Sessions has probably been the most effective attorney general in the eyes of law enforcement in our nation’s history,” National Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Jonathan Thompson said prior to Sessions’ resignation. “He’s done an enormous amount of work in a short period of time to bolster the rule of law and target the things that matter most to us, like high crime, violent crime, the drug addiction and opioid addiction issues.”
It was “disappointing” that Trump has been so openly critical of the attorney general, Thompson said, claiming Sessions was doing “the best job in the Cabinet” from the perspective of law enforcement and had their complete confidence. Thompson said that the day of Sessions’ departure would be the saddest of his career.
Sessions’ critics, to their dismay, agreed that his tenure had been remarkably efficient.
“There is no question that ― despite the humiliation that he’s enduring by Trump ― that he’s been able to do a lot of things to advance his anti-immigrant, anti-civil rights agenda. Maybe that’s why he’s putting up with the blows,” Vanita Gupta, who ran the DOJ’s civil rights division during the Obama administration, said before Sessions’ departure.
“He has been in the Justice Department before, so he knows where the levers are. It feels sometimes like he has a checklist of everything the prior administration accomplished to advance civil rights that has served as a blueprint for him to undo,” said Gupta, who now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Despite the barrage of attacks from his boss, “the attorney general has been able to effect a sea change at the Department of Justice in the year and a half he’s been at the helm,” Ian Prior, who until recently was the No. 2 spokesperson for Sessions’ department, said earlier this year.
“This attorney general came into an organization of 110,000 people ― without a lot of political appointees for a long time ― and was able to completely change the direction of the ship. Now you have this entire department focused on things like reducing violent crime, enforcing immigration laws, fighting the opioid crisis and protecting religious liberties and free speech on campus ― things that just really weren’t at the top of the list of the Obama Justice Department,” Prior said. “I would say he’s been the most effective member of the president’s Cabinet.”
Questions about Sessions’ future really heated up in August, after Trump appeared on “Fox & Friends” and said that Sessions “never took control” of the Justice Department. Sessions, who typically had quietly absorbed the president’s insults, fired back, saying that he did, in fact, have control of the Justice Department and that DOJ’s actions “will not be improperly influenced by political considerations” while he’s attorney general.
The Washington Post reported later that month that Trump had revived the idea of firing Sessions. Politico added that Trump had been lobbying Republican senators against the attorney general and that many have become resigned to the idea that Sessions would be gone after the November elections.
Sessions and Trump are two septuagenarians who agree on most major political issues. But they split on a fundamental issue: the proper relationship between the White House and the Justice Department. Trump, the former reality-TV star and businessman, thinks the DOJ should bend to his will. Sessions, who spoke longingly of his days as a federal prosecutor in Alabama, respected the wall between the White House and the DOJ.
Sessions was unwilling to go down in the history books as the 21st-century equivalent of Robert Bork, the onetime solicitor general who carried out President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox after Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned in protest and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was fired before he had the chance to do the same.
“Sessions appears to be an institutionalist in that he’s deeply concerned about protecting and defending the independence of the Justice Department, but he is also on the other hand abdicating some of the law enforcement responsibilities of the Justice Department, particularly in the civil rights arena,” Gupta said.
“It poses somewhat of a quandary for those of us who believe strongly in the rule of law, but are so offended by the way that Sessions has led the Justice Department,” she added.
Elise Foley contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Aug. 30 and was updated to reflect Sessions’ resignation.
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter covering the Justice Department, federal law enforcement, criminal justice and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at 202-527-9261.