President Donald Trump appears to have reluctantly acquiesced to fellow Republicans’ pleas to not fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions before the midterms.
The president has made it clear on multiple occasions that he finds Sessions unfit for his post, largely due to the fact that the Attorney General recused himself from the Russia probe. As the Mueller investigation escalated over the summer, Trump slammed Sessions for everything from not investigating Hillary Clinton to his Southern accent.
Trump’s attacks on Sessions—and what appears to be the inevitability of his firing—has created an odd scenario in which the Attorney General’s cause is being embraced by liberals, who are criticizing the president for taking vengeance on Sessions. After all, the Attorney General was merely following norms when he recused himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, because his role in the campaign created a conflict of interest.
But it’s important to keep in mind that during his tenure, he was very effective in enacting Trump’s regressive agenda, e.g. curtailing civil liberties, rolling back criminal justice reforms and crushing immigrants’ rights.
Here’s an overview of Sessions regressive policies in his time at the Justice Department.
1. Reversing Obama-era sentencing reforms
One of the main advances of the Obama era were limited criminal justice reforms, including guidelines directing federal prosecutors to seek less draconian sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Jeff Sessions unceremoniously reversed the directive, ordering prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences.
In a memo outlining the changes, Sessions doubled down on mandatory minimums, which tie judges’ hands in sentencing and require harsh prison terms, even for nonviolent crimes. Sessions claimed he was freeing prosecutors from unjust federal control. “They deserve to be un-handcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington,” he said. “It means we are going to meet our responsibility to enforce the law with judgement and fairness.”
Even Republicans criticized the move, with Mike Lee issuing a rebuke to Sessions’ memo: “To be tough on crime, we have to be smart on crime,” he wrote.
2. Muslim travel ban
The Muslim ban, which blocks immigration primarily from Muslim-majority countries, is one of President Donald Trump’s most controversial policies. But the Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions didn’t have qualms about supporting it. When federal judges deemed the ban unconstitutional, citing freedom of religion, Sessions wrote that Trump’s travel restrictions were “within his lawful authority to keep the Nation safe.”
Sessions’ DoJ fought hard for the travel ban, eventually taking the issue all the way to the Supreme Court. The ban was upheld.
3. Torpedoing voter rights
A harsh Texas voter ID law requires voters to show an authorized photo ID (including a gun permit), or a utility bill or other identifying information to vote. Various iterations of the law went through the courts, and a judge once called it a “poll tax without the tax” pointing out that voters would be forced to incur the cost of acquiring identification just to vote.
During the Obama era, the justice department opposed the law, filing on behalf of the plaintiffs. Sessions’ DoJ dropped the lawsuit, signalling that the federal government would not oppose voting restrictions imposed by states. Voter ID laws widely discriminate against people of color low-income voters, and young people, who are more likely to vote for democrats than older whites.
The DoJ also backed Ohio’s efforts to purge inactive voters from its rolls.
Sessions has called the Voting Rights Act intrusive.
4. Reversing protections for transgender people
Jeff Sessions went out of his way to make it clear that the federal government will not concern itself with discrimination against transgender people. Reversing an Obama-era policy that expanded Title VII protections to transgender people Sessions wrote, “Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination encompasses discrimination between men and women but does not encompass discrimination based on gender per se, including transgender status.”
5. Restricting asylum for victims of domestic violence
As part of a wide-reaching efforts to restrict migration, the Sessions DoJ decided to vastly curtail asylum protections to victims of domestic violence. The order also disqualified victims of gang violence. Drug trafficking criminal gangs have turned parts of Central America into war zones. In 2016, more than 60,000 people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, sought asylum, CNN reports.
6. Zero tolerance on migrants
Over the summer, the Justice Department enforced a policy of zero tolerance at the border, leading the forced separation of children from their parents. Jeff Sessions said the Bible justified the policy.
“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said.
7. Restrictions on legal immigration
Sessions has blamed immigrants for the loss of high paying jobs and accused them of abusing welfare benefits. Although he’s claimed he’s merely enforcing the law in cracking down on illegal immigration, he has also called for a reduction in legal immigration.
8. Dropping federal interventions into abusive police departments
One of the first things Jeff Sessions did upon assuming office was drastically curtail federal consent decrees with police departments around the country. Consent decrees pressure police forces with a record of abuses to pursue reforms.
Even as more lawmakers embraced marijuana legalization, Jeff Sessions doubled down on his anti-pot stance. He’s said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” and demanded “grown-ups” in Washington declare marijuana to be a real danger.
Ironically, Sessions antipathy to legalization ended up bolstering legal markets.
After Sessions rescinded the Cole memo—an Obama era directive advising federal law enforcement to stop cracking down on pot in states where it’s legal—state lawmakers were inspired to push for decriminalization and legalization all over the US.
Over the summer he restated his opposition to legal pot but admitted that state law trumps federal law on the issue.
"Personally, my view is that the American republic will not be better if there are marijuana sales on every street corner, but states have a right to set their own laws and will do so, and we will follow the federal law," he said.
10. LGBT rights
Throughout his tenure, Jeff Sessions has gutted protections for LGBT people. A directive issued last October demanded that federal agencies side with religious entities who claim they have the right to discriminate against LGBT people on religious grounds.
“This is a signal to the rest of these agencies to rethink the protections they have put in place on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told the Associated Press.
11. Dog-whistling and racist remarks
Jeff Sessions has praised the achievements of "anglo-American culture" to law enforcement agencies.
“I want to thank every sheriff in America. Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people through the elected process,” Sessions told members of the National Sheriffs’ Association.
“The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement,” he continued.
The remarks are disturbing given the history of accusations against Sessions, including that he used the n-word and made jokes about the Ku Klux Klan, deeming them “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana."