On asset forfeiture, prison sentences, and police oversight, Trump's beleaguered attorney general is rolling back decades of progress, writes C.J. Ciaramella:
To hear Donald Trump tell it, Attorney General Jeff Sessions—Trump's earliest and most like-minded supporter from the Senate—is "very weak" and "beleaguered," a constant disappointment to the president who promised crowds they would win so much they would get sick of it.
Trump has repeatedly said he is disappointed in Sessions, most recently in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, for Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the ongoing Russia investigation. The denouncements have left Washington wondering if Sessions will be the next major administration official to be ousted in the ongoing weekly reality TV show that is the Trump White House.
For his part, Sessions has said he will stay put unless he's fired. The reasons he would tolerate being publicly berated by the president of the United States on a regular basis are fairly obvious: While the rest of the White House has been floundering, Sessions has been able to steadily impose his will from his perch at the nation's top law enforcement agency.
Although turnover and a federal hiring freeze have left U.S. Attorneys offices understaffed, hampering his directives to ramp up federal drug cases, Sessions has still rolled back Obama-era policies that he's deemed too "soft" on crime, ordered reviews of ongoing consent agreements with troubled police departments, and installed like-minded staffers in key positions. On Friday, Sessions announced that, as part of a crackdown on unauthorized leaks that have plagued the Trump administration, the Justice Department would be reviewing its policies for subpoenaing media organizations. "We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited," Sessions said—a warning shot to the press that the Justice Deparment may not shy away from compelling them to testify about their sources.
And unlike Trump's vague populism or the naked careerism of the president's other cabinet appointees, Sessions is driven by a clear ideological vision. His record in the Senate, his actions as attorney general, and his speeches to top law enforcement leaders have articulated a concrete view of crime and punishment in America. That view is rooted in the ideas and tactics that have recently fallen out of favor, even among many of Sessions' Republican colleagues: stiff sentencing policies, the embrace of a Manichean war on drugs and crime that favors police action above police oversight, and the expanded use of controversial tools like civil asset forfeiture. Sessions is taking law enforcement back to the 1980s.
After watching the Obama administration and an increasing number of his own party repudiate that ideology, Sessions is now in a position to rehabilitate it.