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Opinion Jeff Sessions, the doughty bigot

President Trump is treating the midterm elections like a mandate to do what he wants. He does not quite have it, says columnist Dana Milbank. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Breanna Muir/The Washington Post)

Jeff Sessions’s final act as attorney general was perfectly on-brand. On the way out of office, he signed an order making it more difficult for the Justice Department to investigate and implement reform at police departments with patterns of abuse, questionable shootings, racism, and other constitutional violations. Sessions once called such investigations — like those that turned up jaw-dropping abuses in places such as Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Chicago — “one of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power.” He has had only cursory criticism of the horrific abuses actually described in those reports (which he later conceded he sometimes didn’t bother to read), which disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos. For Sessions, it is the federal government’s investigation of such abuses that amounts to not just an unjustified “exercise of raw power,” but a “most dangerous” one.

When President-elect Donald Trump first nominated Sessions, critics raised questions about things in his record that suggested he was racist. Defenders dutifully recited talking points — such as that Sessions had once prosecuted a Klansman for murder — that were later shown to be not entirely accurate. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) even cited these accusations as one of his reasons for voting for Sessions, despite Sessions being diametrically opposed to Paul on a host of criminal-justice issues, from asset forfeiture to sentencing reform to restoration of voting rights for the formerly incarcerated.

Paul’s claim to have been deeply offended by the accusation that Sessions might be racist was keeping in tradition with the Senate’s country-club mentality. Never mind the evidence. Polite senators simply didn’t make such accusations of other senators. So Sessions was confirmed. And he then set about pushing for policies indistinguishable from those that would have been pursued by an attorney general every bit the bigot Sessions’s critics accused him of being.

Take those Justice Department investigations of police departments. These probes aren’t about charging or accusing individual officers. They’re about exposing, documenting and reforming routine abuses. The evidence to whether the consent decrees often enacted after the investigations bring real change is mixed. But there’s no question that the investigations themselves have exposed and documented what the Justice Department calls “patterns and practices” of constitutional violations. For the mostly black and brown people on the receiving end of police harassment, corruption, abuse and lethal force, for the people routinely ignored, intimidated, threatened or mocked when they’ve tried to file complaints — or simply be heard — those reports are validation. The federal government — a division called the “Department of Justice” had put its imprimatur on their reality. It’s an acknowledgment of these communities’ suffering.

But for someone such as Sessions, who once said he was offended by the very term prosecutorial misconduct, any oversight of law enforcement is an affront to law enforcement. When it comes to cops and the communities they serve, the rights that matter aren’t those enshrined in the Fourth or Fourteenth amendments, but the “rights” of police officers — the armed agents of the state entrusted with the power to detain, harm, and kill — to do their jobs without restraint, oversight or scrutiny. When Sessions took office, two U.S. cities were in the process of negotiating consent decrees with the Justice Department — Baltimore and Chicago. Shortly after taking office, Sessions trashed those negotiations and the investigations that preceded them, even as new revelations exposed yet more examples of corruption, abuse and misconduct in both cities — many of which never would have been exposed without federal intervention.

Sessions claims that his opposition to federal oversight of local policing comes from a respect for federalism, or the historically blighted and somewhat less accurate phrase, “states’ rights.” Put simply, he doesn’t think the federal government should be micromanaging local police departments.

But Sessions’s allegiance to federalism is negotiable at best. For example, city officials in Chicago, including the superintendent of police, have tried for months to voluntarily implement reforms to that city’s policing practices. These reforms were negotiated among city leaders, activists groups and police groups. The reforms are a product of local government, and endorsed by local government officials. Yet Sessions’s Justice Department has actively opposed them. Sessions also ended a Justice Department program in which police departments could get grants to voluntarily implement reforms aimed bringing their policies in line with the Constitution. The change was not born of some allegiance to smaller government. The grants weren’t eliminated, but redirected to “membership-based” police organizations.

Police chiefs in “sanctuary cities” all over the country have pleaded with Sessions to respect their policies regarding immigration enforcement. They say — with good data to back their claims — that aggressive local enforcement of immigration law makes undocumented people less likely to cooperate in police investigations and less likely to report even serious crimes like murder. Sessions, who professes to take an “originalist” approach to the Constitution, insisted that local law enforcement shoulder the burden for a duty the Constitution specifically delegates to the federal government (immigration enforcement), while shirking his own Fourteenth Amendment obligation as attorney general to protect the rights of citizens when state and local governments refuse to do so.

Sessions also abandoned his allegiance to federalism when it comes to marijuana. He once called for the execution of drug dealers and, as a U.S. attorney, prosecuted drug offenders (including possession crimes) at a rate twice the national average. If Sessions had his way, the Justice Department would have cracked down on the states that have legalized marijuana. Some might argue that Sessions was merely following federal law as laid out by the Supreme Court. But then, this is the man who once said, “It is not an act of courage but supreme arrogance to pretend that the wisdom of five judges is greater than all the men and women who have voted upon this issue in the 50 states.” Of course, Sessions was then talking not about pot, but gay marriage.

Sessions also abandoned (or at least tried to) the Obama administration’s modest reforms to civil-asset forfeiture, the policy that allows police to seize and keep property without ever charging the property’s owner with a crime. President Barack Obama had sought to phase out a policy known as “adoption,” in which local police agencies partner with a federal agency such as the Drug Enforcement Administration in order to circumvent laws enacted by state legislatures aimed at protecting property owners from unjust seizures by local police. The adoption policy is a direct affront to the will of state legislatures; it is a direct attack on federalism. Obama tried to end it. Sessions tried to bring it back.

Sessions has also cited federalism and “equal protection under the law” in explaining his opposition to federal hate-crimes laws. Yet when he was a senator, Sessions introduced bills to add police and military members to the classes of people protected by federal hate-crimes laws. He’s opposed to hate crimes, but also apparently willing to expand them. Sessions has also cited federalism in his opposition to federal investigations into possible violations of the voting rights of black people but, over the course of his career, has called for federal intervention into allegations of political discrimination against churches and the Christian right. On this past Election Day, the Justice Department sent voting rights monitors to 19 states. Just three were former confederate states (Virginia, Florida and Georgia) and, in two of the three, the monitors were sent to the bluest counties in those states.

Moving beyond federalism and states’ rights, there is the child separation policy, one of the cruelest, needlessly punitive immigration policies in modern memory. Sessions has been widely reported as its chief architect. The wrenching images of screaming children and sobbing parents we’ve seen have sometimes been portrayed as a public relations nightmare for the Trump administration. That isn’t true. Early on, Sessions himself described the policy as a “deterrent” to asylum seekers. For a policy to deter, it needs to (a) inflict pain on current asylum seekers, and (b) make sure future asylum seekers are aware of that pain. As Sessions would later say, “We’ve got to get this message out.”

In other words, those images weren’t a PR nightmare; they were part of the plan. Jeff Sessions, a man who has spent his entire political career claiming to be a voice for families and children, oversaw a policy of official child abuse, one of inflicting lifelong psychological damage on children, all because the parents of those children came to the United States in search of asylum, and because Sessions doesn’t want the United States to be the sort of place where desperate people go to seek protection. He then cracked a poorly delivered joke about it all.

Sessions’s originalism is also hard to square with his sharp criticism of Obama for granting clemency to drug offenders. The Constitution is explicit about the president’s power to grant pardons and clemency. It is absolute. Yet Sessions claimed Obama had abused “executive power in an unprecedented, reckless manner.”

And as Mark Joseph Stern writes at Slate, while Sessions positioned himself as a champion of free speech on campus, as attorney general of Alabama, he tried to bar LGBTQ student groups from meeting on campus at state schools. It turns out, he’s only in favor of speech from favored groups.

To build support for his agenda, Sessions has stoked the fear of crime — particularly urban crime in cities such as Chicago. You could argue that his rhetoric comes straight out of Richard M. Nixon’s notoriously racist 1968 presidential campaign, except that Nixon was, at least, stoking white fear of crimes that were actually occurring. Sessions consistently exaggerates crime rates, and bends the data to fit his narrative. He blamed the American Civil Liberties Union for a spike in Chicago murders, citing a study that has since been widely debunked. He falsely attributed a two-year uptick in violent crime nationally to the allegedly lenient federal drug-sentencing policies of former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. (He also inaccurately characterized the Holder memo that laid out those policies.) A report from the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General later thoroughly refuted those claims. And in support of the family separation policy, Sessions cited “massive increases in illegal crossings” and warned that the country was in danger of being “overwhelmed.” In truth, border apprehensions remain at near-historic lows.

The common factor in the policies that made up Sessions’s Justice Department agenda, then, isn’t federalism or equal protection or “states’ rights.” When states or local officials are accused of violating the rights of minorities and other marginalized groups — blacks, Latinos, the LGBTQ community — Sessions has opposed federal intervention, citing states’ rights. When state and local officials want to opt out of federal policies many believe to be oppressive or discriminatory against those groups — immigration enforcement, marijuana legalization, asset forfeiture — Sessions cites the supremacy of federal law. There is only one consistent principle in play here: bigotry.

Sessions has shown a truly disturbing commitment to pursuing these ugly policies. Throughout his tenure at the Justice Department, Sessions was publicly berated, insulted, and emasculated by President Trump, because Sessions recused himself from overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Bizarrely, Trump bumbled his way into a scenario where his attorney general’s most vociferous opponents were also demanding that he keep his job.

Sessions undoubtedly knew the president couldn’t risk the political blowback that would come from firing him. So Trump, instead, tried to bully Sessions into resigning. In a fit of vulgar fortitude, Sessions withstood the humiliation and refused to resign.

But Sessions didn’t take Trump’s abuse to protect the integrity of the Mueller investigation. He endured it so he could continue implement his agenda of discrimination, constitutional neglect and nationalism. In the end, Sessions was fired for the only right thing he did.

History won’t be kind to Jeff Sessions. But perhaps there’s a backward lesson in his tenure as attorney general. As the rest of his party capitulates while Trump lays waste to norms and institutions, Sessions weirdly showed some backbone. It was a twisted, gnarly, racist backbone. But it was there. Maybe the lesson is that we could all strive to be as dedicated to honorable principles as Jeff Sessions was to repugnant ones.