President Trump kicked a gift horse in the mouth when he called Attorney General Jeff Sessions “Mr. Magoo,” comparing the country’s top law enforcement officer to a bumbling, visually impaired old man.
Sessions may be blinkered in his ideology and hold some old-school ideas, but he’s pulled Trump’s cart a long way.
Sessions has been deft at advancing conservative social and criminal policies that the White House loves — providing the basis to rescind DACA, slicing away at LGBT nondiscrimination protections, targeting drug dealers, and prosecuting gangs. All the while, in court, he’s defended Trump’s hastily conceived orders and tweets.
Trump’s adversaries on the left have recoiled at Sessions’ aggressiveness. When Trump was publicly shaming Sessions as “beleaguered” and “WEAK” last summer, Vanita Gupta, who ran the department’s Civil Rights Division from 2014 to 2017, told BuzzFeed News, “For us, when we were leading the Department of Justice, there was a keen sense that some of the most significant work had a target on it, and this has borne out to be true.”
Yet in recent weeks, Trump has bludgeoned Sessions again for refusing to investigate Democrats close to president Barack Obama and his election rival Hillary Clinton.
And Trump fumed when Sessions deflected requests to investigate the process by which Trump’s campaign allies were probed for their Russian alliances.
After each of Trump’s castigations, a question keeps percolating: Why hasn’t Trump just fired him?
But this may be the wrong question — because we have a sense of why Trump hasn’t pulled the trigger.
Trump’s advisers must know Sessions is adept. Not only skilled at advancing policy, Sessions hasn’t embarrassed himself by, say, ending up in the press for renting a private jet or ordering office furniture that cost more than your car.
And replacing Sessions would be hell. Republicans in the US Senate, where Sessions last served, appear allergic to appointing a pushover a few months before their party risks a bloodbath in the midterm election. They’ve also bristled at Trump’s past threats at Sessions. Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which advances presidential judicial appointments, said on Twitter last July “no way” to the notion of appointing a new attorney general. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a member of the committee, said in a speech that if Trump wanted a recess appointment, "forget about it."
In the meantime, the line of succession at the DOJ begins with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who would likely present the same problems for Trump — like refusing to investigate the president's political enemies on a whim. And while Trump has the authority to appoint an acting attorney general outside of the line of succession, that would certainly come with its own political complications.
But there is a question that’s not being asked as often: Why is Sessions staying onboard despite the abuse?
Sessions has his dream job. Yet that’s not a satisfying answer alone, because what’s curious is why Sessions loves the DOJ so much that he’d endure harder punches than his predecessors.
Sessions is loyal to his ideology — see: immigration, pot, religious freedom — but his true love is the rule of law. In a floor speech when he was a senator from Alabama, he talked about his “beloved Department of Justice,” and now as the department’s head, he renews vows almost weekly in speeches about the “rule of law.”
When Sessions went after sanctuary cities in late January, he said they “undermine the rule of law,” and a few weeks before he’d warned that tolerating pot businesses “undermines the rule of law.” His department has issued statements on “the rule of law” as grounds to tighten immigration enforcement, rescind guidance documents, and hire more cops. When his former deputy Rachel Brand gave a speech on Feb. 15, the week after she announced plans to quit, she put it succinctly: “He is committed to ensuring that everything DOJ does promotes the rule of law.”
So what must Sessions think, then, when one the most powerful threats to the rule of law is Trump himself?
Consider something Trump said on Wednesday, which Sessions may have found even more shocking than Trump’s Mr. Magoo taunt.
“Take the guns first, go through due process second,” Trump said, talking about the response to shooters like the one in Parkland, Florida.
It was just the latest instance of a Trump not knowing — or not caring — about the basics of American legal structure.
Journalist Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, the editor-in-chief of the popular legal Lawfare blog, have become exasperated at Trump’s attack on the legal order, and distilled Trump’s attacks on the rule of law in the Atlantic this month like this:
This includes Trump’s sinister interactions with his law-enforcement apparatus: his demands for criminal investigations of his political opponents, his pressuring of law-enforcement leaders on investigative matters, his frank efforts to interfere with investigations that implicate his personal interests, and his threats against the individuals who run the Justice Department. It also includes his attacks on federal judges, his pardon of a sheriff convicted of defying a court’s order to enforce constitutional rights, his belief that he gets to decide on Twitter who is guilty of what crimes, and his view that the justice system exists to effectuate his will.
Sessions has defended these pillars of the legal order amid Trump’s attacks. Many of these institutions are housed inside the DOJ (like the FBI, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, and special counsel Robert Mueller). Others work with the DOJ (like local prosecutors and judges, who get to decide whether someone is charged or cleared of a crime).
Sessions sees himself a bulwark to protect the rule of law — and that requires remaining in charge of the federal government’s foremost legal agency.
This isn’t to say Sessions is fighting to protect Trump’s critics from the president. Sessions has been an ardent backer of Trump from the nascent days of the campaign — and again, they’re aligned on many goals that Sessions has helped accomplish.
Sessions can be mushy on the law, too. He claimed that DACA was legally indefensible because a related, but separate, Obama administration policy concerning parents had been tossed out by a court. Critics and even a federal judge said that was an apples-to-oranges application of law. Sessions also sought to subvert Colorado state law that bans anti-gay discrimination, saying a Christian baker had a constitutional right to turn away gay couples.
But Sessions has shown his allegiance to the White House, and his ideology, can take takes backseat when it comes to enforcing the law — and protecting law-enforcement institutions.
After claims that the FBI erred when it sought warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Sessions referred the matter to the department’s inspector general, the office responsible for investigating wrongdoing within the department.
Trump on Wednesday called the move "DISGRACEFUL!," asking if the inspector general is "an Obama guy."
In response, Sessions noted his role at the DOJ and how he plans to use it. “As long as I am the Attorney General,” Sessions said in a statement, “I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.”
Yet perhaps nowhere is Sessions’ loyalty to the law — above all else — more obvious than with his handling of anti-LGBT hate crimes. Sessions voted against the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. But now that he’s attorney general, Sessions uses it. On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced it had landed a 10-year sentence against a Texas man who’d committed an anti-gay hate crime — wielding the same statute Sessions opposed, before it was actually the law.