“[Jeff Sessions is] a man of integrity, a man of principle, and a man of total, utter resolve . . . that resolve is what we need right now.” -President Donald Trump, February 9, 2017
For many Americans, their vote in last November’s election came down to the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether the average voter realized it or not, second only in importance to SCOTUS nominations, arguably, was the question of who would run the Department of Justice.
During the previous eight years, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch — the nation’s top cops — led our country’s law enforcement in a direction that was unrecognizable to middle America. The enforcement of federal laws was cherry-picked, sanctuary cities were left untouched, Congress was stonewalled on scandals from gun walking to voter intimidation, and worst of all, the law enforcement community at large was persecuted and demoralized.
If maintaining a majority conservative SCOTUS was viewed as our last best hope, then a Justice Department run by Jeff Sessions was, in many ways, the second-to-last.
Trump’s nomination of Sessions was met with a sigh of relief from voters across the country who needed reassurance that the president intended to surround himself with serious individuals capable of carrying out the bold agenda he laid out on the campaign trail.
Sessions was certainly that — a man with an unflappable ability to stay focused on the bigger picture when everyone around him is hand-wringing over political repercussions of the here and now. And that’s exactly the mentality he’s brought to the Justice Department
In just six months on the job, he has:
Jeff Sessions has managed to do all of this and more while navigating the oft unnavigable waters of this presidency. What else could you ask for? Apparently, in Trump’s calculation, a lot more.
If Trump knew anything about the man he was nominating to the esteemed role of attorney general, he would know that Sessions was no man’s lap dog and would allow himself to be guided only by his own principles. Wasn’t that obvious by Sessions’ early, extremely risky endorsement of Trump?
As Sessions made clear in his confirmation hearings, he did not take lightly the prospect of recusing in any case, and was confident that he could follow the law and the facts where they led — no matter the situation. Still, he felt he had to make an exception on the issue of Hillary Clinton and was forthright with the Senate Judiciary Committee on this matter, citing his involvement in the campaign.
In the lead-up to the election, rumors about the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russia had just begun to surface. Sessions had no reason to believe it would evolve into what it did and, knowing he had not been a party to any “collusion,” had no reason to hint to the president or anyone else about the possibility of recusal.
But a month into his role, he determined — on the advice of Justice Department attorneys—that he needed to take himself out of any campaign-related investigations. This was, by the way, the exact process he assured the Senate Judiciary Committee he would follow if serious questions of recusal came up. He said:
“If a specific matter arose where I believed my impartiality might reasonably be questioned, I would consult with Department ethics officials regarding the most appropriate way to proceed…I will always be fair and work within the law and the established procedures of the Department.”
Though any good lawyer could argue either side, the advice Sessions received and his ultimate decision to recuse were founded in a reasonable interpretation of what the law demanded. And believing the law demanded it, ethics did, too. Again, he kept his word to the Judiciary Committee when he pledged: “If I am confirmed, I will endeavor to uphold the highest standards of ethical conduct and avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interests at all times.”
The president’s frustration at the many distractions that have plagued his first six months in office are easily understandable, as is his frustration with the appointment of a special prosecutor and the seemingly unbridled breadth of that investigation.
But he is losing sight of who his real friends (and enemies) are. He’s also underestimating the value of Sessions’ strong and steady presence in his Cabinet and the critical importance of his leadership at the Justice Department in this day and time.
Jeff Sessions cares far too deeply for his department and the country to quit now. He’s at his best when the heat is turned all the way up, enabling him to be effective when others would’ve long since folded. Let’s hope the president recognizes, once again, that Sessions is the right man for the job and his resolve is, as the president himself said, what we (so desperately) need right now.
Katherine Robertson is a former Justice Department staffer and Judiciary Committee counsel to then-Senator Jeff Sessions. She currently serves as Chief Counsel to the Alabama Attorney General. The opinions expressed are her own.