Last week, in a tweet storm, President Trump made clear that he is still fuming over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse from the Russia probe. On Tuesday the president took to Twitter to vent yet again:
Trump’s anger makes sense if you believe Sessions always intended to recuse from the investigation but withheld that information from Trump until he had been appointed the country’s top law-enforcement official. The facts, however, don’t bear out that assumption. Rather, the timeline shows that Sessions’ March 2, 2017 recusal was not premeditated, but in response to Democrat efforts to entangle the attorney general in the Russia collusion narrative.
Those efforts portrayed Sessions as perjurer who lied during questioning from Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). Sessions stated under oath that he did not have “communications with the Russians.” However, as Andrew McCarthy later pointed out, that statement was inaccurate because “there were at least two occasions during the 2016 campaign on which Sessions, then a senator and a member of the chamber’s Armed Services Committee, had contact with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States.”
But neither of those meetings raised concerns of complicity, nor was Sessions’ answer perjurious. And the contacts did not mandate recusal.
So Why Did Jeff Sessions Recuse?
So why did Sessions recuse? Here’s McCarthy’s take: “Sessions is a good and decent man. He is a scrupulous lawyer who cares about his reputation. Thus, in stark contrast to Obama administration attorneys general, he strictly applied — I’d say he hyper-applied — the ethical standard that calls on a lawyer to recuse himself from a matter in which his participation as counsel would create the mere appearance of impropriety.”
I concur. Sessions did not recuse because it was required; Sessions recused because he is scrupulous. Democrats took advantage of Sessions’ dedication to the rule of law to manipulate the attorney general into standing down from overseeing the Russia probe. This effort served a secondary purpose as well: forging a wedge between Trump and Sessions, who was one of the president’s earliest and strongest supporters.
Sessions also does not bear responsibility for the witch hunt former FBI director James Comey unleashed when he leaked government documents—including at least one that was classified—to his friend, law professor Daniel Richman. Nor can Sessions be blamed for Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint a special counsel in apparent violation of Department of Justice regulations (and the Constitution). Sessions could never have predicted this turn of events.
For these reasons, Trump’s anger toward Sessions is misplaced. But the continuing feud is much more—it is also counterproductive to Trump’s goals.
If Trump Dumps Sessions, He’ll Smart for It
While it is true that “[t]here are lots of really good lawyers in the country” Trump could have appointed as attorney general, Sessions’ successes are unparalleled. In fact, last year during Trump’s similar Twitter fit over Sessions, Slate’s Leon Neyfakh cheered for Trump’s tweets to push Sessions’ out:
Is there really any chance that after ousting one extremist, the Trump administration would bring in someone less extreme? The answer is we don’t know, but one thing that can be said about Sessions six months into this presidency is that he has made extremely quick work of advancing his policy goals. As an arch-right attorney general who has been described as the president’s ideological twin, Sessions has demonstrated a tremendous aptitude for the work of policymaking in the Trump era. It’s possible that Sessions’ successor would lack that aptitude and be less effective at making Trump’s dreams come true.
The president needs to realize what the Left realized long ago: when Sessions succeeds, Trump succeeds. Rather than sidestep the attorney general, Trump should showcase Sessions’ successes. Here are three places the president should start.
1. Judicial Appointments
Trump deserves full credit for appointing solid originalist jurists “in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.” But the attorney general’s Office of Legal Policy helped turn Trump’s campaign promise into a reality, by providing superior vetting and prepping of candidates, as well as conducting moot hearings and fighting negative press stories about crucial Trump appointees to multiple circuit courts.
As Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams put it in recent remarks to the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers: “When President Trump was on the campaign trail, he made the judiciary a central theme. It’s no surprise, then, that judicial nominations were a priority for this administration from the beginning, with a Supreme Court nomination one of the President’s first official acts. Attorney General Sessions is likewise dedicated to supporting the President in this regard. Both as a Senator, and now in his current position, he has made clear his support for the President’s appointment of extremely well-qualified, highly respected judges who will be neutral umpires.”
The results? Unprecedented. In addition to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, the president has nominated at least 102 individuals to serve on the federal bench, with 32 confirmations, including 27 nominations and 14 confirmations to the federal circuit court of appeals.
Democrats’ attempts to block Trump’s judicial appointments in the usual way, such as by withholding blue slips or relying on a compliant media to malign candidates, have proved ineffective. But the Left sees a glimmer of hope every time Trump is sucked into attacking Sessions: first because an attorney general vacancy would necessarily short-circuit the appointment and confirmation machinery Sessions has built and perfected; and second, because Sessions’ departure would incite allegations that Trump was interfering in the Russia probe. This would destroy the political capital the president needs to push through his judicial nominees.
2. Illegal Immigration
While Trump ran on “Build the Wall,” that soundbite also conveyed a bigger promise: to enforce immigration law. Here, the attorney general’s leadership equals his oversight of the judicial nomination process. There are many examples of Sessions’ return to the rule of law regarding immigration, but his recent decision in Matter of Castro-Tum provides the starkest contrast to the catch, release, and politicize approach of the Obama administration.
In Matter of Castro-Tum, Sessions considered whether the practice of immigration judges “administratively closing” cases, rather than enforcing immigration law, was valid. Administrative closure means deciding not to prosecute illegal entry.
The attorney general, who in the context of immigration law holds the unique ability to overrule decisions by administrative law judges or the Board of Immigration Appeals, held in Matter of Castro-Tum that “immigration judges and the Board lack a general authority to grant administrative closure.” Sessions explained that “administrative closure particularly undermines the [Immigration and Naturalization Act’s] mandate to swiftly adjudicate immigration cases when the respondent fails to appear.”
Sessions’ decision on this is significant—and a major change from the Obama administration’s policy. Beginning in 2013, the prior administration promoted the use of administrative closure in immigration cases, allowing illegal immigrants to ignore court dates, have their removal cases closed indefinitely, and, in effect, remain in the United States illegally. The results of the lax enforcement are staggering. In the six years “[f]rom October 1, 2011 through September 30, 2017, 215,285 cases were administratively closed,” in contrast to the total of 283,366 cases closed in the prior 30 years.
Under Sessions’ leadership, then, illegal immigrants will no longer be able to flout the law, ignore removal proceedings, then establish decades-long connections to the United States, casting them as victims when the law is eventually enforced.
Democrats are helpless to directly counter Sessions’ enforcement of immigration law, and they lack the political strength to legislate their preferred policy objectives, which is why the Obama administration opted to instead legislate by abdication. With Sessions in charge of the Justice Department, the Left sees little hope in obtaining amnesty for the millions of future Democratic voters.
So, instead the liberals plot to destroy the president’s political ally, by portraying him as the president’s personal nemesis. The mainstream press cooperates in these efforts by running regular narratives suggesting Sessions betrayed Trump. From Trump’s recent tweets, this approach is working.
3. Opioid Crisis
Finally, Sessions’ focus on fighting illegal immigration has a secondary effect on another of his top priorities: combating the opioid crisis. In a speech last month, Sessions stressed that many illegal aliens entering the country transport drugs, fueling the opioid crisis. “If you’re moving fentanyl, we’re coming after you … and we’re going to seek real time in jail for you,” Sessions said in a speech to the National Sheriff’s Association.
In addition to increased enforcement of immigration law, Sessions has overseen myriad policies designed to confront the devastation of opioids. He created the Prescription Interdiction and Litigation (PIL) Task Force to fight the prescription opioid crisis. This task force, Sessions explained, “will aggressively deploy and coordinate all available criminal and civil law enforcement tools to reverse the tide of opioid overdoses in the United States, with a particular focus on opioid manufacturers and distributors.”
This task force also builds on the many other initiatives the attorney general launched since he took the helm of the Department of Justice. During that time, Sessions’ team charged more than 120 defendants, including physicians, for crimes related to prescribing or distributing opioids and other similar drugs. He seized Alpha Bay, the largest Internet distributor of illegal drugs, including more than 100 vendors advertising fentanyl, and assigned a dozen experienced assistant U.S. attorneys to opioid “hot spots” to focus on opioid-related health care fraud.
With 180 Americans dying every day from drug overdoses, the impact of the opioid crisis cannot be overstated. Nor can the importance of Sessions’ leadership in combatting this deadly scourge. Yet while firmly directing the course of the Department of Justice, Sessions never usurps Trump’s authority, but instead pays homage to the president who made “clear from the beginning that fighting this epidemic is a priority for this administration.”
Trump “believes that we can defeat the scourge of drugs and save thousands of Americans from addiction and death,” Sessions proclaimed, adding “[a]nd he is right.” Trump, however, is wrong to blame Sessions for “spygate,” and in doing so rewards the Left for entrapping Sessions into recusal. Other than seeing Trump gone, liberals would prefer nothing more than destroying Sessions—and Trump’s legacy in the process.