Jeff Sessions takes charge: Expect an era of open warfare on civil rights and civil liberties

Expect good times for cops and prosecutors and a return to the "war on drugs." Don't invest in legal weed just yet

By Heather Digby Parton


Published February 13, 2017 1:12PM (EST)

Jeff Sessions   (Getty/Win McNamee)
Jeff Sessions (Getty/Win McNamee)

From the flurry of leaks coming out of the Trump administration over the weekend it appears that the chaos is only worsening. National security adviser Michael Flynn is under fire over lying about talking to the Russian embassy about sanctions during the transition. The White House is already said to be looking for replacements for chief of staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer. The Japanese prime minister's state visit was a bit of a mess, culminating with a bizarre and somewhat frightening story about Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussing secret information about North Korea's missile launch at a public dinner table at Mar-a-Lago surrounded by customers, some of whom were taking pictures of the national security staff.

Up until that point, one might have assumed that the appearances of top Trump adviser Stephen Miller on all the Sunday morning shows would be the scariest moments of the day, particularly the one on CBS' "Face the Nation" where the 31-year-old White House wunderkind proclaimed:

Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.

The president tweeted that he was very pleased with Miller's performances, which isn't surprising since the two have had a meeting of the minds ever since Miller left the cozy confines of Jeff Sessions' Senate office for the Trump campaign in January last year.

Indeed, the best part of Trump's week had to have been the vote to confirm his pick for attorney general. With Sessions in place at the Justice Department, the likelihood of Trump being able to avoid any serious investigation of his corrupt business activities or unethical ties to foreign actors are substantially increased. That is surely a relief.

While the White House may be a total mess and much of the executive branch is being run by neophytes and fools, the Justice Department is likely to be one agency that functions. Its most obvious and immediate focus will be on immigration and voter suppression, two issues of very special concern to Trump and Sessions. But the Department of Justice has a vast area of responsibility and Sessions is sure to apply his specific brand of extremism to all of them. He's been waiting for this opportunity for many, many years.

Jeff Sessions was a hard-core "law and order" prosecutor and a hanging judge, and he has not mellowed with age. He publicly admired Trump for his notorious "Central Park Five" ad in which he called for the death penalty for five suspects who were later found innocent of the crime. Those who are wrongfully convicted should probably not look to Sessions' Department of Justice to admit wrongdoing. His stated view is that charges of prosecutorial misconduct are a form of abuse by defense attorneys, who he contends are constantly "outgunning the prosecutors."  He will do everything in his power to protect even the dirtiest of prosecutors because he sees them as the real victims in the justice system.

Sessions likewise believes that the police are at a terrible disadvantage in America, under siege by criminals and a politically correct society that subjects them to unfair restrictions. He is on record against the use of federal investigations and enforcement of consent decrees to compel corrupt and violent police departments to change their cultures, having said, “One of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power is the issuance of expansive court decrees. Consent decrees have a profound effect on our legal system as they constitute an end run around the democratic process.”

By that, Sessions essentially meant that local police departments should not be subject to federal civil rights enforcement. If people of color or members of other minority groups don't like the way they're treated, they can vote out the politicians who hire the police officers. (That assumes, of course, that they will be allowed to vote.) Whatever the Justice Department may have once done to combat discrimination, excessive force and unfair sentencing, it will do so no longer.

We can say goodbye to any thoughts of the attorney general's office supporting sentencing reform. Indeed, Sessions appears to believe that most sentences are far too short, particularly for drug crimes — a topic he is a full-fledged zealot about. With a couple of rare exceptions, he has been opposed to all the recent efforts at prison and sentencing reform. He believes that the only way to reduce the demand for drugs is to send drug users to prison for long mandatory terms.

Addressing the opioid epidemic last year, Sessions said, "We can wish that we could just turn away and reduce law enforcement, but I do believe that we're going to have to enhance prosecutions. There just is no other solution.” He is convinced that the war on drugs was a huge success and that people are only using drugs today because the government gave up and backed down.

Nobody knows just yet how Sessions will deal with the burgeoning legal marijuana industry in various states. He is on record as having said, "good people don't smoke marijuana," a statement that apparently embraced both medical and recreational use of the substance. Let's just say that if you're thinking of making a big investment in that industry, you might want to wait and see how the new DOJ decides to treat this issue.

Sessions will also be in charge of terrorist prosecutions, and we already know that he won't be terribly concerned with domestic terrorism committed by non-Muslims (unless they happen to be left-wingers or "eco-terrorists"). He'll likely let the FBI do whatever it wants when it comes to surveillance and domestic spying. There will be little or no restraint on the basis of protecting civil liberties.

Jeff Sessions is an angry man who believes that American society is under threat not just from foreigners or immigrants or rival powers. He believes America is also under threat from within — from U.S. citizens who must be kept under control by harsh discipline inflicted by government authorities. He is a definitely an old-line traditionalist, but not one of those conservatives who talk a lot about freedom and liberty. That's because he doesn't really believe in them.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton