Jeff Sessions Is Betraying His Own DOJ

He’s playing a dangerous rhetorical game—and giving life to baseless Republican attacks on the department’s credibility.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions waits for US President Donald Trump to speak about newly passed tax reform legislation during an event at the White House December 20, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Trump hailed a 'historic' victory Wednesday as the US Congress passed a massive Republican tax cut plan, handing the president his first major legislative achievement since taking office nearly a year ago. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Sessions at the White House on Dec. 20, 2017, in Washington. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Jeff Sessions says he wants to depoliticize the Justice Department. How nice.

In a speech he gave on Friday in Norfolk, Virginia, Sessions pledged to restore the DOJ to its erstwhile unbiased glory: “My purpose every day is to get the department back to its fundamental mission of enforcing the law and protecting the safety of Americans with integrity and fairness,” he said. What the attorney general left unsaid, however, was that congressional Republicans inspired this pronouncement of most honorable intent, with an escalating series of claims that the DOJ is a cesspool of corruption and bias. By staking out a midpoint between efforts to delegitimize the department and efforts to hold ground, Sessions moved the center to a perilous place, under cover of moderation.

In recent weeks, a slow and steady drumbeat of efforts to discredit and destabilize the DOJ and the FBI—and by extension, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation—has erupted on the right. This has become a kind of pin-the-tail-on-the-conspiracy game involving some lost texts, an imaginary anti-Trump secret society, and a pretend cabal of anti-Trumpists who must be outed at all costs, because Devin Nunes has a “memo” that allegedly reveals vast malfeasance and who knows what else. (Release the Memo! It must be something, because it has the word “Memo” in it.)

In normal times, we might expect the attorney general to simply defend his department from such claims. But Jeff Sessions is not a normal attorney general, and these are not normal times. And so, with his speech in Norfolk, Sessions was trying to accomplish two things at once: He wanted to assuage the career DOJ employees affronted by the congressional assault—and as always, he wanted to appease Donald Trump. In essence, he’s trying to have it both ways. Reasonable people could differ, he implies, but certainly, a fanciful Nunes-based conspiracy theory predicated on a misreading of individual FBI texts, is the political equal of—well—the totality of collective wisdom of the law enforcement arm of the federal government.

Sessions’ statement about the need to depoliticize the Justice Department comes on the heels of his own Justice Department in fact pushing back against his own party’s members in Congress. Republicans would like to publicly release a classified memo describing the FBI’s alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), an effort to impugn the integrity of the FBI and in an effort that the DOJ currently describes as “extraordinarily reckless.” Congressional Republicans insist that Devin Nunes’ secret memo would suggest that the FBI relied on politically motivated or biased sources to support a request for a secret surveillance warrant in the FISA court’s investigation. This is just the newest version of an ongoing effort to imply that Mueller, Sessions, Rod Rosenstein, and anyone else whose last name ends with “Justice” needs to be summarily fired in order to Make America Great Again.

Nevertheless, Jeff Sessions is of the view that Republican critics of the DOJ are to be seen as creditable sources of opinion. Or, as he noted, is his Friday speech, “We don’t see criticism from the Congress as a bad thing. We welcome Congress as a partner in this effort. When they learn of a problem and start asking questions, that is a good thing. Sunlight truly is the best disinfectant. Truth produces confidence.”

When Sessions credits Nunes—whose own hometown newspaper came out against him this past weekend for privileging these GOP attacks against the FBI over the national interest—with being a dangerous and partisan voice of opposition to the Justice Department’s neutrality, what he is in fact doing is putting a very powerful thumb on the scale for the proposition that his own Justice Department is hopelessly biased—for Hillary Clinton and against Donald Trump. But what he wants us all to believe is that he is pushing back equally—both against the claim that the FBI and the DOJ are liberal minions of Satan, and against the equally substantial claim from Democrats and department veterans that the institutions are comprised of career lawyers who strive to embody the basic American values of rule by law every day. And in that middle place, no doubt, is true Justice.

As a coda to this absurd pledge to depoliticize an entity that has struggled to remain nonpartisan, let the record reflect that (Republican!) Sen. Lindsey Graham took to the airwaves on the Sunday shows to assert—rumors and reporting about what actually transpired last summer notwithstanding—what the firing of Robert Mueller would mean: “It’s pretty clear to me that everybody in the White House knows it would be the end of President Trump’s presidency if he fired Mr. Mueller,” Graham told ABC’s Martha Raddatz on This Week. Sessions knows that Graham is right. He is—as his own perilous status at attorney general reflects—both serving at the mercy of the president, and an ambulating, breathing red line, whose firing would suggest the end of this constitutional democracy. But, despite living on that knife’s edge, Sessions is seemingly happy to perform the theater of sane moderation. His own Justice Department versus the nutty people? Well, who’s to say?

Watch the two-step please. Just watch it: Utterly batshit claims come from congressional Republicans about imaginary secret societies and deeply entrenched deep-state corruption within the FBI last summer. The DOJ itself rejects such claims and cautions against giving them credence at the risk of harming the whole of the Justice Department and the FBI in order to achieve short-term political gains. Donald Trump—perennially to be counted upon to take the least judicious side in any dispute that pits the rule of law against the demonstrably insane—sides against his own Justice Department in calling for the release of the Nunes memo, over the department’s own cries that it would be reckless and dangerous to release it without review.

So on the one hand the DOJ is trying to defend itself against all attacks on its credibility. And at the same time the president and attorney general are siding with Congress against their own administration, because if they can discredit the DOJ, they think they can save the president’s skin. These aims are fundamentally at odds.

Sessions could have sided with his own DOJ. He could have sided with Robert Mueller. He could have sided with the many, many lawyers, who have devoted their many careers and many years to promoting a Justice Department that is assiduously neutral in the face of partisan attacks. He chose not to do so, to nobody’s surprise, because in his world, the implication that there are “good people on both sides” allows for some fair and neutral ground between the entirety of his own Justice Department and Devin Nunes’ claims that the whole institution is basically Hogwarts for liberal demons.

Be very, very worried about people like Sessions—people who want to stake out a reasonable middle ground between decades of lawyers who have strived, with greater and lesser success, to be guided by the rule of law, and a congressman who believes that two FBI agents who were joking in their text messages represent the heart and soul of the law enforcement community. The midpoint between rank insanity and conventional norms just isn’t mincing moderation. We learn that more and more every single day.