WASHINGTON (AP) — With two dust-ups in a week, first with a judge in Hawaii and another with leaders of the nation’s largest and most powerful police department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sounds to some more like the conservative senator from Alabama he once was rather than the top prosecutor he is today.
And some observers say the Republican’s blunt style could strain relationships with the very law enforcement officials whose partnerships he contends are vital and risks politicizing criminal justice issues that demand the Justice Department’s attention.
Sessions drew the ire of Hawaii’s Democratic lawmakers after saying on a radio show he was “amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific” could stop President Donald Trump’s travel ban, though he later indicated the comment was meant as a joke.
“This is political point-scoring by the new administration,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and now a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “This job is different. If Jeff Sessions wants to work in the White House political operation he can do that, but it should be a qualitatively different job than any other Cabinet job. It should have a special place.”
As U.S attorney in Mobile, Alabama, Sessions faced allegations of racially charged remarks and they cost him a federal judgeship. As a senator, Sessions was not afraid to be outspoken, even if it left him on the fringe. And as he closes in on his first 100 days as attorney general, he’s not couching his remarks.
Sessions played a prominent role in the campaign and remains a close ally to Trump, whose own verbal bombshells have been a unique trademark of his presidency. The attorney general has become enmeshed in the messaging around the administration’s ban on travelers from predominantly Muslim countries and has escalated Trump’s threats to pull grant money from so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to share information with federal immigration authorities.
His comments about New York were accompanied by letters to that city and other jurisdictions asking them to document their cooperation.
“This is the Trump era. Progress is being made daily, and it will continue,” Sessions said Wednesday after a judge blocked attempts to strip sanctuary cities of funds, drawing on Trump and Sessions’ own comments in his decision. The judge noted that the attorney general had suggested the cities stood to lose far more than the relatively small pot of grant money at stake.
Though independent in its handling of cases, the Justice Department historically is in sync with the law enforcement priorities of the White House, and it’s not uncommon for personal bonds to exist between a president and attorney general. President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder were close friends known to hang out on Martha’s Vineyard vacations, with Holder once describing himself as the president’s “wingman.”
Holder also faced criticism over his remarks and actions. The White House wanted to assign him a handler after he called the U.S. a “nation of cowards” for avoiding conversations about race. And police said they at times felt alienated by Holder, who once described warning his teenage son about how to interact with officers if confronted. They also saw a lack of support from the administration after Holder visited with the family of Michael Brown, who was killed by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri, whom the Justice Department declined to prosecute.
Indeed, some who’ve been involved in the process say harsh words come with the territory.
“I don’t see him as having ratcheting up the rhetoric in any way,” Mark Corallo, who was chief spokesman for former Attorney General John Ashcroft. “He’s doing his job. The times are different. He is behaving in a totally appropriate way.”
Unless an attorney general says something that interferes with an open case, there’s no formal code that governs how he should speak publicly, said Daniel Feldman, a John Jay law professor who was a senior member of former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s staff. Often the question comes down to whether he should, rather than whether he can, say something, Feldman said.
The head of one New York officers union defended Sessions for denouncing de Blasio’s sanctuary city policy. But some officers already feel that major changes enacted over the past four years haven’t been recognized, and the attorney general’s comments added salt to the wound. Crime continues to go down; the city had the fewest shootings ever in 2016, and barely missed a record low for murders.
“When you have the attorney general picking fights with the NYPD, it drives a wedge between the two agencies,” said Matthew Miller, who led Holder’s public affairs office. “When the attorney general makes the kind of statement Sessions has done in the first 100 days, it really discredits his authority.”
The Justice Department declined to comment on Sessions’ remarks and would not say how the decision was made to criticize New York. In a subsequent television interview, Sessions said the city had developed “some of the best” policing techniques ever. Police Commissioner James O’Neill on Friday said he believes that someone corrected Sessions’ impression of the work being done there.
“I’m not surprised or gratified (by the change in position). I know what the New York City police department does every day so I don’t need anyone else to tell me that,” O’Neill said.
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