As attorney general, Jeff Sessions will take center stage in nation's most acute controversies

Los Angeles Times

After enduring an unusually bitter confirmation battle for a sitting U.S. senator, Jeff Sessions will barely have time to settle into his fifth-floor office at the Justice Department before he takes center stage in some of the nation’s most acute controversies.

If Sessions is confirmed Wednesday by the Senate, as expected, the nation’s 84th attorney general will be responsible for leading the legal defense of President Trump’s immigration restrictions, for halting and investigating terrorist attacks, and for probing hate crimes and egregious abuses by local and state law enforcement.

He also is expected to play a key role in implementing Trump’s promised crackdown on illegal immigration by increasing deportations.

His boss isn’t making things easier. In addition to falsely claiming that the news media have ignored terrorist attacks — the White House later said they included the mass shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando, Fla. — Trump chastised a federal judge in personal terms for halting an immigration and refugee ban from seven mostly Muslim nations. The legal battle over the travel ban could quickly move to the Supreme Court.

Sessions “is in a tight spot, that is for sure,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “He has a tough job for a whole panoply of reasons.”

Sessions was first elected to the Senate from Alabama in 1996 and served two decades on the Judiciary Committee, which reviews federal judges and conducts oversight of the Justice Department.

But in a partisan era, his confirmation hearings quickly broke on party lines. In the end, he did not receive a single vote from Democrats on the committee.

Supporters say Sessions is uniquely qualified to lead the Justice Department in such a turbulent time.

Pointing to his 12 years as U.S. attorney in Alabama, and two years as state attorney general, they said Sessions has the experience to prosecute criminals, make policy decisions and aggressively tackle illegal immigration.

They described him as personable and courteous, traits that led him to be generally well regarded in the Senate, and could help him win over career Justice Department lawyers.

“He is serious about both the law and the department, and with his background he is uniquely equipped to handle the job,” said Michael B. Mukasey, who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush and who testified in support of Sessions’ nomination. “I suspect the learning curve won’t be too steep for him.”

Democrats and civil rights groups worry that Sessions’ conservative record on civil rights, voting rights and environmental laws portends trouble.

They also are concerned that such an ardent Trump advocate — Sessions was one of Trump’s earliest and most enthusiastic campaign surrogates — will oversee the reported federal investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

U.S. intelligence agencies last month issued a report that concluded Russian intelligence agencies launched cyberattacks against Democratic Party officials and took other measures aimed at influencing American voters to support Trump. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other Democrats have questioned whether Sessions can be trusted to enforce the law, especially if potential investigative targets are in the White House.

“It is very difficult to reconcile for me the independence and objectivity necessary for the position of attorney general with the partisanship this nominee has demonstrated,” Feinstein said to explain why she voted against Sessions’ nomination in the Judiciary Committee.

Sessions has said he won’t be afraid to tell Trump he was wrong or that a planned action is unconstitutional.  An attorney general has “to be able to say no, both for the country, for the legal system and for the president, to avoid situations that are not acceptable. I understand that duty,” Sessions testified.

Legal experts and former Justice Department officials said Sessions would have a difficult task. Trump is used to getting his way. He also has expressed expansive views of presidential authority that worry even the most conservative legal scholars.

John Yoo, a law professor at UC Berkeley who served in the Justice Department in the George W. Bush administration, said Sessions would have to combat those presidential impulses while retaining Trump’s trust — a task that Yoo likened to walking a tightrope.

“If you are too far from the president, you will get cut out of the decision-making process and you are not doing your job as attorney general,” said Yoo, who recently wrote in the New York Times that he had concerns about Trump’s use of presidential authority.

While in the Justice Department, Yoo was a vocal advocate for a muscular executive branch. He wrote the so-called torture memos that gave the Bush administration the legal authority to approve the CIA’s use of "enhanced interrogation" of suspected terrorists, including waterboarding.

“On the other hand,” Yoo added, “someone has to tell the president that what he is doing is illegal or unconstitutional, even when Trump’s instincts and his political advisors are pushing for it. Sessions is the only person in the administration now who can do that, tell the president no. We will have to see how that plays out.”

In contrast, Yoo said James B. Comey, the FBI director, has little political capital. 

In July, Comey publicly announced that no charges would be filed against Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton for her email practices as secretary of State, infuriating Republicans. Then, a week before the November election, he announced the FBI was reviewing newly discovered emails, astonishing Democrats.

The last-minute disclosure threw the presidential race into chaos, and even though Comey said several days later that the review had ended, Democrats blamed Comey for tipping the election in Trump’s favor.

Sessions had no role in that controversy, but he may have to deal with its aftermath. Comey’s actions — and others taken by the Justice Department in the email inquiry — are under investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

The outcome of that inquiry “could be very messy,” Yoo said. “Suppose it determines that Comey acted improperly and made bad decisions. The natural question then is, should he be replaced? Whatever the decision, it is going to be unpopular.”

Sessions can expect a frosty reception from some staffers at the Justice Department, particularly those in the civil rights and environmental units, which expect their broad authority under the Obama administration to be curtailed. Lawyers in other divisions said they didn’t expect much to change.

Despite the uneasiness, lawyers at the Justice Department said they were pleased with early White House choices for key department posts.

In particular, they cited the selection of Rod Rosenstein, a longtime Justice Department lawyer who has served as U.S. attorney in Maryland in both Republican and Democratic administrations, to be deputy attorney general.

“Rod is a great pick,” said David O’Neil, a former top Justice Department official in the Obama administration, echoing comments of current lawyers. “He is as institutional as they come. He has a lot of integrity.”

The deputy attorney general runs day-to-day operations in the sprawling department, which includes the FBI, Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.  It has more than 100,000 employees and a $28.7-billion budget.

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del.wilber@latimes.com

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