For more than five hours, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sat in a hearing room on Capitol Hill this month, fending off inquiries on Washington’s two favorite topics: President Trump and Russia.
But legislators spent little time asking Sessions about the dramatic and controversial changes in policy he has made since taking over the top law enforcement job in the United States nine months ago.
From his crackdown on illegal immigration to his reversal of Obama administration policies on criminal justice and policing, Sessions is methodically reshaping the Justice Department to reflect his nationalist ideology and hard-line views — moves drawing comparatively less public scrutiny than the ongoing investigations into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin.
Sessions has implemented a new charging and sentencing policy that calls for prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible, even if that might mean minority defendants face stiff, mandatory minimum penalties. He has defended the president's travel ban and tried to strip funding from cities with policies he considers too friendly toward undocumented immigrants.
Sessions has even adjusted the department’s legal stances in cases involving voting rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in a way that advocates warn might disenfranchise poor minorities and give certain religious people a license to discriminate.
Supporters and critics say the attorney general has been among the most effective of the Cabinet secretaries — implementing Trump’s conservative policy agenda even as the president publicly and privately toys with firing him over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia case.
While critics lambaste what they consider misguided changes that take the department back in time, supporters say Sessions has restored a by-the-book interpretation of federal law and taken an aggressive stance toward enforcing it.
“The Attorney General is committed to rebuilding a Justice Department that respects the rule of law and separation of powers,” Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said in a statement, adding, “It is often our most vulnerable communities that are most impacted and victimized by the scourge of drug trafficking and the accompanying violent crime.”
In meetings with top Justice Department officials about terrorist suspects, Sessions often has a particular question: Where is the person from? When officials tell him a suspect was born and lives in the United States, he typically has a follow-up: To what country does his family trace its lineage?
While there are reasons to want to know that information, some officials familiar with the inquiries said the questions struck them as revealing that Sessions harbors an innate suspicion about people from certain ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement, “The Attorney General asks lots of relevant questions in these classified briefings.”
Sessions, unlike past attorneys general, has been especially aggressive on immigration. He served as the public face of the administration’s rolling back of a program that granted a reprieve from deportation to people who had come here without documentation as children, and he directed federal prosecutors to make illegal-immigration cases a higher priority. The attorney general has long held the view that the United States should even reduce the number of those immigrating here legally.
In an interview with Breitbart News in 2015, then-Sen. Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke favorably of a 1924 law that excluded all immigrants from Asia and set strict caps on others.
“When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy and it slowed down immigration significantly,” Sessions said. “We then assimilated through 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America.”
Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division in the Obama administration who now works as chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Sessions seems to harbor an “unwillingness to recognize the history of this country is rooted in immigration.”
“On issue after issue, it’s very easy to see what his worldview is of what this country is and who belongs in this country,” she said, adding that his view is “distinctly anti-immigrant.”
Those on the other side of the aisle, however, say they welcome the changes Sessions has made at the Justice Department.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for moderating levels of immigration, said she would give the attorney general an “A-plus” for his work in the area, especially for his crackdown on “sanctuary cities,” his push to hire more immigration judges and his focus on the MS-13 gang.
“He was able to hit the ground running because he has so much expertise already in immigration enforcement and related public safety issues and the constitutional issues, so he’s accomplished a lot in a very short time,” Vaughan said.
Prior, the Justice Department spokesman, said, “Clearly having an immigration system that focuses on national security and the national interest should be a matter of importance to the nation’s highest law enforcement official.”
Police oversight, sentencing
Questions about Sessions’s attitudes toward race and nationality have swirled around him since a Republican-led Senate committee in 1986 rejected his nomination by President Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship, amid allegations of racism. In January, his confirmation hearing to become attorney general turned bitter when, for the first time, a sitting senator, Cory Booker (D-N.J.), testified against a colleague up for a Cabinet position. Booker said he did so because of Sessions’s record on civil rights.
Sessions ultimately won confirmation on a 52-to-47 vote, and he moved quickly to make the Justice Department his own. Two months into the job, he told the department’s lawyers to review police oversight agreements nationwide, currying favor with officers who often resent the imposition of such pacts but upsetting those who think they are necessary to force change.
Similarly, Sessions imposed a new charging and sentencing policy that critics on both sides of the aisle have said might disproportionately affect minority communities and hit low-level drug offenders with stiff sentences.
Allies of Sessions say the policy is driven not by racial animus but by a desire to respond to increasing crime. The latest FBI crime data, for 2016, showed violent crimes were up 4.1 percent over the previous year and murders were up 8.6 percent — although crime remains at historically low levels. The Bureau of Prisons projects that — because of increased enforcement and prosecution efforts — the inmate population will increase by about 2 percent in fiscal 2018, according to a Justice Department inspector general report.
Larry Thompson, who served as deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration and is a friend of Sessions, said that although he disagrees with the attorney general’s charging policy, he believes Sessions was “motivated by his belief that taking these violent offenders off the streets is the right way to address the public safety issues.”
Civil rights, hate crimes
Sessions's moves to empower prosecutors have led to a concerted focus on hate-crimes prosecutions — a point his defenders say undercuts the notion that he is not interested in protecting the rights of minorities or other groups. Prosecutors have brought several such cases since he became attorney general and recently sent an attorney to Iowa to help the state prosecute a man who was charged with killing a gender-fluid 16-year-old high school student last year. The man was convicted of first-degree murder.
But while civil rights leaders praised his action in that case, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that it “stands in stark contrast to his overall efforts” to roll back protections for transgender people.
Shortly after he became attorney general, Sessions revoked federal guidelines put in place by the Obama administration that specified that transgender students have the right to use public school restrooms that match their gender identity. In September, the Justice Department sided in a major upcoming Supreme Court case with a Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because he said it would violate his religious beliefs.
Sessions recently issued 20 principles of guidance to executive-branch agencies about how the government should respect religious freedom, including allowing religious employers to hire only those whose conduct is consistent with their beliefs. About the same time, he reversed a three-year-old Justice Department policy that protected transgender people from workplace discrimination by private employers and state and local governments.
The Justice Department has similarly rolled back Obama administration positions in court cases over voting rights.
In February, the department dropped its stance that Texas intended to discriminate when it passed its law on voter identification. And in August, it sided with Ohio in its effort to purge thousands of people from its rolls for not voting in recent elections — drawing complaints from civil liberties advocates.
At a recent congressional hearing, Sessions said the department would “absolutely, resolutely defend the right of all Americans to vote, including our African American brothers and sisters.”
Critics say, though, that his record shows otherwise. “We are seeing a federal government that is pulling back from protecting vulnerable communities in every respect,” Clarke said. “That appears to be the pattern that we are seeing with this administration — an unwillingness to use their enforcement powers in ways that can come to the defense of groups who are otherwise powerless and voiceless.”