The Ballad of Jeff Sessions

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It’s quite ironic that one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump—former Attorney General Jeff Sessions—became one of his bitter foes. And it’s even more surprising that Democrats became some of the most outspoken defenders of the chief architect of family separation policy. Donald Trump’s demagoguery has surely created some strange bedfellows.

From the beginning of the 2016 campaign, Trump echoed the “law and order” rhetoric of Richard Nixon’s 1968 election campaign by appealing to growing fears of immigration from Latin America. A longtime supporter of “tough on crime” policies, Sessions quickly jumped on the Trump bandwagon and, knowingly or not, secured himself a cabinet position.

Sessions expected that his position of Attorney General would afford him more agency to carry out the ultra-conservative agenda that he promoted in Congress, and he wasn’t wrong. He was a staunch opponent of open immigration policies and a pathway to citizenship in Congress, and he continued that tradition as Attorney General, outlining the zero-tolerance policy in April 2018 that separated migrant children from their families. And although he supported reducing the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine—which was established during the height of the crack hysteria in the 1980s—he remains supportive of stricter penalties for drug offenses.

In a memo in May 2017, he encouraged prosecutors to “charge the most serious, readily provable offense,” in an attempt to reaffirm the “tough on crime” strategy that the Obama administration had migrated away from. In this memo, Sessions aimed to reframe the issue of crime—particularly nonviolent, victimless crimes like drug abuse—as a moral issue rather than a social one. Furthermore, as lawmakers, judges, and the general public have observed the failures of the War on Drugs, the country has begun to embrace a more even-handed approach to drug trafficking and abuse. As Attorney General, Jeff Sessions did all he could to reverse that progress.

Jeff Sessions was one of the chief architects of the “zero tolerance policy” that separated families at the border. Photo via Joe Lamberti / The Associated Press

On immigration issues, Sessions didn’t let his feud with President Trump prevent him from aiding Trump in his racist, hardline immigration agenda. Race-based fear-mongering is integral to this agenda, as the Salvadoran gang MS-13 has become the new bogeyman of the Trumpian right. Even though local law enforcement—even in areas with the most MS-13 activity—say that the president’s claims on the gang are overblown, Sessions ordered his investigative deputies to prioritize the gang. Seeing an opportunity to advance the anti-immigration agenda that he had long endorsed in the Senate, Sessions succumbed to the MS-13 hysteria.

If Sessions’s agenda has mirrored Trump’s campaign rhetoric, why have the two become such bitter foes?

The feud between Trump and Sessions began when the latter, having contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, recused himself from the FBI’s Russia probe. Known for demanding unswerving loyalty from his cabinet members, Trump was furious, believing that the Attorney General’s recusal suggested that there were bona fide connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. As Trump’s attacks on Sessions became public—and, in signature Trump fashion, incredibly infantile—Democrats began to worry.

Even though Sessions had a considerable role in executing Trump’s immigration and crime agendas, the vast majority of the president’s public statements on Sessions were negative, referring to his recusal from the Russia investigation. Trump’s reluctance to give his AG due credit illustrates that he values loyalty so much that perceived disloyalty overshadows policy achievements. Furthermore, Trump has shown that his litmus test for Attorney General has little to do with their policy agenda and everything to do with whether he/she will protect him from criminal investigations. Expect an AG who will unwaveringly defend Trump in front of the Mueller probe.

The story of Jeff Sessions shows that Trump is the textbook Machiavelli. Actually cracking down on crime matters less than advancing rhetoric about crime that fires up voters. And having competent cabinet members is far less important than having cabinet members who will protect the president without hesitation.

Featured Image via Evan Vucci/AP

About the author

Matt Walsh is a VI Form day student from Southborough, Massachusetts. He edits for LEO, leads Openly Secular, plays trumpet, and leads the young Democrats club. Matt is a hot sauce connoisseur, and he loves Tabasco. His academic interests include public policy, political science, and chemistry, and he plays baseball and runs cross country. In his free time, he gets outraged about Trump.

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