As U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions is the No. 1 law enforcement officer in the country, a position that gives him an extraordinary bully pulpit to educate Americans, especially young ones, about the law and traditions of justice in this country. He just blew it big time on that score when he spoke in front of a group of high school students. Here’s what happened.
Sessions on Tuesday delivered a speech at the High School Leadership Summit of the conservative group Turning Point USA on what he and other conservatives say is a retreat from free speech on college campuses. As this Washington Post story quoted him saying:
“I can tell this group isn’t going to have to have Play-Doh when you get attacked in college and you get involved in a debate,” Sessions said. “You’re going to stand up and defend yourselves and the values that you believe in. I like this bunch, I can tell you. You’re not going to be backing down. Go get ’em! Go get ’em!”
The crowd, which had erupted into a “lock her up” chant earlier, began the chant again.
“Lock her up,” Sessions chuckled. The chants continued, and he added, “I heard that a long time over the last campaign.”
Sessions was referring to the refrain commonly chanted by Donald Trump and his supporters when Trump was running for president in 2016. It referred to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate who Trump repeatedly said should be put in jail.
Some media reports have said Sessions joined in on the “lock her up” chant, while others said he merely repeated it once and then reminisced about the campaign.
Whatever he actually thought he was doing, this is what he did not do: educate the crowd about the fact that Clinton was never charged with any crimes, and that U.S. presidents don’t jail their opponents because they don’t like them.
He could have given them a basic lesson in American jurisprudence. He didn’t.
He could have done what John McCain did in 2008 during a town hall meeting in Wisconsin when people in the crowd leveled racial and ethnic attacks against Barack Obama. McCain told them they were wrong. When one of his own supporters said he was scared of Obama, McCain said: “I have to tell you: He is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.”
When another of McCain’s supporters said Obama was an “Arab,” meant by the backer as a pejorative, McCain took the microphone from her and said: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
Sessions didn’t act anything remotely like that. Which makes him the worst teacher of the week — even though it is only Tuesday.
(Correction: The McCain event was in Wisconsin.)