With Jeff Sessions resigning as attorney general after months of clashes with President Donald Trump over the Russia investigation, it may be difficult to remember why Trump nominated him to the role in the first place.
The answer, though, is pretty simple: When it comes to the typical duties of the attorney general, Trump and Sessions were always very closely aligned.
Both men have long personified the “tough on crime” politics of the 1980s and ’90s. Trump dedicated an entire chapter in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, to promoting “tough on crime” ideas, including more aggressive policing, longer prison sentences, and broader use of the death penalty. On the presidential campaign trail, Trump explicitly billed himself as “tough on crime.”
Sessions, with his background as a prosecutor, has long embraced this “tough on crime” view. In the Senate, for example, he was credited with helping kill criminal justice reform, particularly bipartisan legislation that would have reduced mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders and given judges more sentencing discretion in cases involving low-level drug offenders.
And as attorney general, Sessions lived up to the “tough on crime” expectations. Here are some of the major steps he took:
- He pulled back Justice Department investigations into local police departments. Under the Obama administration, these investigations helped expose abuses and outright racism. But Sessions, like Trump, argued that they shackled police departments, preventing them from being as aggressive as they should have been in the fight against crime.
- He rescinded an Obama-era memo sent out by then-Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013, which told federal prosecutors to avoid charges for low-level drug offenders that could trigger lengthy mandatory minimums. His new memo said that “prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” even when dealing with low-level drug crimes, calling this concept “a core principle” of the Justice Department. This was, plain and simple, an escalation of the war on drugs.
- In response to the opioid epidemic, Sessions also signed off on a memo that asked federal prosecutors to consider the death penalty for cases “dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs.” (The evidence doesn’t support this and other “tough” approaches for drugs.)
- Sessions briefly tried to ramp up the war on marijuana by signaling to federal prosecutors that they could crack down on pot even in states where it’s considered legal — potentially allowing prosecutors to shut down state-legal pot businesses. (Although this went too far, apparently, for even Trump, who later suggested that he did not support the crackdown.)
- Sessions even talked up DARE, the anti-drug education program that’s been thoroughly discredited by researchers and experts.
Criminal justice experts warned all this time that Sessions’s approach to crime would not work. As Harvard criminologist Thomas Abt previously told me, “Jeff Sessions is a crime dinosaur, peddling ‘tough on crime’ policies that went extinct years ago. He tries to link violent crime to the ‘smart on crime’ policies of the past administration, but there’s simply no evidence to support his argument.” (Abt broke down his criticisms further in a series of tweets.)
But Sessions, buoyed by Trump’s support for “tough on crime” policies, continued his work anyway.
This doesn’t even include Sessions’s views on immigration and his use of the Justice Department to crack down on illegal immigration. As Dara Lind wrote for Vox, Sessions “built an enduring legacy — for himself and the president who spurned him — during less than two years in office.” Among many changes, Sessions’s changes pushed immigration judges to make decisions faster — potentially turning them into “a deportation assembly line” — and limited the legal options that immigrant defendants could use to remain in the country. Trump, of course, supports these policies.
Nor does it include Sessions’s focus on voter fraud — which is extremely rare in the US — instead of voter suppression, which is very real. Trump has also backed such an approach, with his constant lying about levels of voter fraud in the US.
This is the paradox of Jeff Sessions: He personified Trumpism in many ways, and did a good job turning Trump’s campaign and Twitter rambles into real policy as attorney general. But because Sessions rebuked Trump on just one issue — by refusing to prevent and reel in the Russia investigation — Trump threw it all way.