Under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the first 100 days at the Department of Justice have seen perhaps the most straightforward and earnest efforts to bring the promises of the Trump movement to fruition.
Stepping into leadership at a DOJ managed for eight years by Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, Sessions has had an uphill battle to implement the key tenets of law and order that so many Americans have long craved and which President Donald Trump promised as a candidate: an end of the lawless hypocrisy on the southern border and in the internal enforcement of our immigration laws, especially in state a jurisdictions that openly flaunt federal law and proclaim themselves “sanctuaries;” a firm commitment to get a handle on rising violent crime, especially in our most dangerous inner cities; and steadfast support of our law enforcement officers at a time when they face danger and disparagement from inside the government and without.
Hitting the Ground Running:
Attorney General Sessions was confirmed by the Senate on February 9, 2017, three weeks into the new administration. One of the very first national politicians to endorse candidate Trump, he was the fifth cabinet member to take his seat, but not before a smooth yet contentious confirmation process yielded one of the most awkwardly worded and forced political slogans of recent memory.
“Nevertheless, she persisted,” the much-touted line goes, a reference to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) explanation of his use of Senate rules to prevent Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) reading a 30-year old letter from Coretta Scott King to imply racist motives to then Senator Sessions. The use was later criticized by Ms. King’s niece.
The fireworks on the Senate floor were quickly followed up in the White House. On his first day as Attorney General, Sessions stood by President Trump’s side as he signed no fewer than four executive orders pertaining to the Justice Department.
A “New Era” on the Border
Without doubt, cracking down on illegal aliens and the resultant lawlessness on the border and in our immigration system has been the greatest focus of Sessions’ attentions in his tenure at DOJ. Merely the signal of will from the new administration has already brought extraordinary results. March of 2017 saw the lowest number of illegals caught on the border in 17 years, a 72 percent reduction in apprehensions from the last month of the Obama administration.
Rhetoric was repeatedly backed up with action on the Attorney General’s part. In early March, the DOJ shifted 50 immigration judges to detention center along the border and in illegal alien heavy cities. The were set to work in twelve-hour shifts to help clear the massive backlog of deportation cases. This proved to be merely a prelude to much more substantial reform.
On the morning of April 11, 2017, the Attorney General toured the southern border with officers of U.S Customs and Border Protection. Addressing them and the nation, he proclaimed, “For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era. This is the Trump era.”
“The catch and release practices of old are over,” Sessions continued, announced that 125 additional immigration judges would be hired on expedited basis. They would be needed because from this point on all adults apprehended at the border were to be detained by federal authorities.
A new set of guidelines was sent to every federal prosecutor in the country. Those who illegally enter the United States a second time will now face felony prosecution as a matter of course, as well those who illegal enter after having been deported, and transporting or harboring three or more illegal aliens. Charges of aggravated identity theft are to be levied on those caught with fraudulent documentation.
These measures are designed to work in tandem with a similar ramping up at the Department of Homeland Security, where 10,000 additional ICE officers have been authorized and are in the process of being hired. Attorney General Sessions made a point of making joint appearances with DHS Secretary John Kelley, presenting a united front to bring order to the border. The two cabinet officials noted increased arrests, more deportations of criminals, and other operations contributing to the apparent decrease in illegal border crossings.
While President Trump has, so far, not seen it fit to reverse Obama’s Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals executive order, granting amnesty to those who came illegal as children and register with the federal government, the Attorney General has made it clear that the law remains the law. Asked by Fox News in April about the deportation of certain so-called DREAMer (after the never enacted DREAM act), Sessions was unequivocal, “The policy is that if people are here unlawfully, they’re subject to being deported. Our priority is clear. Our priority is to end the lawlessness at the border.”
No Sanction for “Sanctuaries”
From the very beginning of his tenure, Attorney General Sessions has tried to bring jurisdictions who refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement back to legal normality, even if it means cutting their federal funds to convince them to do so. Sessions has done this in the face of steadfast refusal to cooperate by some of nation’s most powerful local leaders. For example, Chicago, under the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, went so far as to issue a new type of identification available to illegal alien without the city keeping records in response to fears the administration might be able to force the “sanctuary” to give up information on immigration status. Sessions made a point of calling out a California prosecutor who appears to, as a matter of policy, be reducing charges to avoid triggering “violent felon” deportation requirements.
The most troubling resistance, however, came this final week of the first 100 days, as a federal court in San Francisco blocked enforcement of President Trump’s executive order commanding Sessions to cut off federal funds from recalcitrant jurisdictions. At the moment, as the administration has released no comprehensive plan as to what funds are subject to suspension, it is unclear what effect this temporary order will have. It will, however, prevent the use of that executive order’s authority while a lawsuit from a number of California sanctuary jurisdictions makes its way through the courts.
Sessions has not taken this tactic to continue flaunting federal immigration law lightly. In a statement Wednesday, the Attorney General was very clear as to how he saw the lawsuit:
At the heart of this immigration debate is disagreement over whether illegally entering this country is a crime. Our duly enacted laws answer that question.
Nevertheless, actions that have always been understood to be squarely within the powers of the President, regardless of the Administration, have now been enjoined. The Department of Justice cannot accept such a result, and as the President has made clear, we will continue to litigate this case to vindicate the rule of law.
Separate from the wider pledge to cut the flow of federal funds to sanctuary jurisdictions, Sessions has used his independent authority to bring pressure to bear. After weeks of threatening action, the Department of Justice sent letters to nine of the states and cities who most vigorously stifle immigration enforcement, demanding they show compliance by June 30 or forfeit their DOJ Bryne Grants for law enforcement. As these grants already have requirements to follow federal law attached to them, these letters may be unaffected by the ongoing court fracas over President Trump’s executive order.
The mayhem of our inner cities in the waning years of the Obama administration was no less troubling than the chaos on the border. On the day Sessions took office, an executive order established a task force for tackling the violent crime increase seen in certain cities. Sessions has spoken on numerous occasions on his support for a return to “broken windows” policing and taking local law enforcement’s side in their effort to wrestle their crime rates back down to the historic lows seen only a few years ago.
Some of the violence is fueled by what the justice department calls “transnational criminal organizations,” brutal gangs like MS-13 and wide-reaching networks like the Mexican drug cartels. At a meeting of the Attorney General’s Organized Crime Council, Sessions made clear his department would have “zero tolerence” for gang violence as it brings an executive order targeting these organizations for deportation and dismantling into reality.
Supporting Law Enforcement:
To many Americans, the Holder-Lynch DOJ’s failure to keep crime in check and the border under control was compounded by the perceived failure to adequately support law enforcement officers and their in this trying time. Black Lives Matter and other left-wing groups brought anti-police rhetoric to the forefront of the public discourse and politicized violence against the police made headlines throughout 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Justice Department responded by launching investigations into police brutality, bias, and misconduct, making it anything but clear that American law enforcement had their unequivocal support.
Spearheaded by Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta’s Civil Rights Division, the Obama administration responded to riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland by launching federal investigations into those cities’, and others like murder-capital Chicago’s, police departments. The results were predictable. A “Ferguson Effect,” where officers were reluctant to make the routine stops necessary to keep crime under control for fear of being sanctioned for misconduct contributed to a shocking rise in violent crime in the very communities supposedly protected by federal oversight of police. Initially dismissed as a right-wing conspiracy theory, the Ferguson Effect has since been supported by a survey of police officers and by a National Institute of Justice study funded by the Obama DOJ.
When Attorney General Sessions took the reigns at DOJ, there was an immediate shift in tone. “Please know that you have the full support of our Department,” Sessisons told a meeting of police chiefs in April. He went on to call out the former administration’s treatment of police:
In recent years, as you know, law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the crimes and unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors. Amid this intense criticism, morale has gone down, while the number of officers killed in the line of duty has gone up.
Attorney General Sessions has done what is in his power to try and reverse the damage done to Law Enforcement relations. He ordered a complete review of all Obama-era investigations into local law enforcement. He has even sought to scale back the consent decree reached to install federal monitoring of Baltimore’s Police Department in the waning days of the Obama administration. When the federal judge in the case refused to reopen the issue, Sessions issued a public statement criticizing the whole endeavor, saying, “There are clear departures from many proven principles of good policing that we fear will result in more crime.”
Wednesday saw the first of Attorney General Sessions’ Senate-confirmed subordinates take office: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Over the coming weeks, it is expected that serious progress will be made on nominating and confirming permanent occupants for the dozens of political positions at the Department of Justice, including the over 90 U.S. Attorneys who lead federal criminal prosecutions. The key victories of the first 100 days were accomplished by the Attorney General without any of them in place. As his team assembles around him, Attorney General Sessions looks to be better able to direct the legal policy of the United States government to restore his vision of law and order.