Jeff Sessions has been attorney general of the United States long enough to make one thing clear: He doesn't care much for the rights of the accused. Or even the rights of people who haven't yet been formally accused of any thing. Consider the controversy over civil asset forfeiture.
Rooted in the so-called "war on drugs" launched in the 1970s and '80s, civil asset forfeiture — seizing homes, cars, cash or other possessions that allegedly may have been used in the commission of a crime — has been broadly interpreted to allow law enforcement agencies to seize millions of dollars of people's stuff, even in cases where no one has yet (or ever) been convicted of a crime. In some instances, law officers seize the home of a law-abiding citizen merely because they believed someone temporarily staying there — a grandson or a nephew, say — was up to no good.
For decades, cities like Philadelphia were hotbeds for these property seizures and no one was even questioning the practice. Today, a lot of people are asking hard questions about it. Locally, city and state officials have already drastically scaled back such programs to limit abuse while those who've been harmed — such as the Philly parents threatened with losing a home over a son's $40 drug deal — are pursuing a lawsuit aimed at blocking civil forfeitures all together. On the federal level, former President Barack Obama had a mixed record but his first attorney general Eric Holder did take some steps during Obama's second term to scale back civil seizures.
Since the main policy thrust of the Trump administration is to reverse anything that happened under Obama, it probably won't surprise you to learn that Holder's tentative steps in the right direction are being reversed by Sessions and his new team at the Department of Justice. Last week, DOJ announced it was moving to make it easier to seize cash and property from criminal suspects — even in the 24 states, many with Republican governors, that had placed restrictions on the controversial practice. Sessions seemed totally oblivious to the massive abuses in the program…
…as he called it "a key tool" in the fight against crime.
But then, Jeff Sessions seems oblivious to many things that have happened since his idyllic youth in the 1950s and early 1960s as an Eagle Scout in Camden, Alabama — beginning with his seeming lack of awareness of the civil right protests that rocked the town in 1965 as he was graduating high school. Continuing with his 1980s efforts to prosecute blacks registering their neighbors to vote in rural Alabama, Sessions has been remarkably consistent in fighting to curtail civil liberties. He opposes the positive work taking place in cities like Philadelphia, which has seen crime rates continue to drop in recent years even while — or often because of — encouraging immigrants to report crime in a "sanctuary city,' decriminalizing recreational marijuana use, and working (with mixed results) to curb abusive stop-and-frisk practices that target non-whites and reduce the number of police-involved shootings.
In just four months in office, Sessions has targeted sanctuary cities, launched new offensives in the discredited "war on drugs" that has made America the world leader in mass incarceration, and said the only problem with police-involved shootings is that the "thin blue line" needs to be fortified. In Sessions World, there is no social problem that can't be solved by locking more people up and refusing to give human beings the benefit of the doubt. Somewhere up there, the harsh Greek law-giver Draco, who liked to cut off people's hands for minor offenses, is looking down and asking, "Man, does this Sessions dude ever give anybody a break?!"
But here's the incredible irony. Jeff Sessions isn't just the nation's highest ranking law-enforcement officer. He is also — according to evidence that is mounting daily — a prime candidate for criminal prosecution.
It's an incredible story. As attorney general, Sessions oversees a criminal-justice network, including the FBI, that has made it its business to charge people with lying — in sworn testimony, in written documents, even in interviews with federal agents. Yet back in January, as a U.S. senator seeking confirmation in his high-ranking Trump administration post, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions raised his right hand and swore to tell the whole truth, before telling what seem to be epic lies about his contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign.
When Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota asked Sessions a fairly straight-forward question about reports of links between the Trump campaign and Moscow, the future AG volunteered: "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians." It turns out, as Sessions later conceded in a follow-up written statement, he'd met with the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak. Twice, he insisted — and he doesn't remember much what they talked about but it wasn't really the Trump campaign. Honest. Now investigators are probing whether there was at least a third meeting that Sessions didn't report even when he tried to clear up that first false statement.
That was before this weekend, when things go a lot worse for the embattled attorney general — and not just because he seems to have lost the confidence of President Trump by maneuvering his way out of position to quash the Russia probe. The Washington Post reported that intelligence intercepts revealed that Kislyak may have told his superiors in Moscow that the campaign — and what Trump could do for Vladimir Putin's government in areas such as lifting sanctions imposed by Obama — was the crux of what he talked to Sessions about. It's revealing that Sessions' boss (for now) Trump went on a Twitter diatribe against "leaks" — not against the veracity of the Post report. It increasingly looks as if Sessions lied at his confirmation hearing because the truth was just too devastating to speak.
As a graduate of a small Methodist university, Sessions is presumably well-acquainted with the Bible's so-called Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Yeah, right. If Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, were investigating Jeff Sessions, criminal suspect, for lying to the federal government, he'd surely bust that bad dude on the toughest possible rap — felony perjury — and go after the maximum penalty, which is five years in prison plus fines. And before his case even went to trial, Sessions and his lawmen would try to seize all the cash they'd claim he'd earned illegally by lying to become attorney general, and maybe they'd even take the car he drove to the Senate hearing for good measure.
Instead, according to news accounts, here's what President Trump is exploring whether to do unto Jeff Sessions and to a whole host of top aides and Trump family members — maybe even himself: Grant a full pardon that would prevent prosecutors from going after any potential crimes that have been committed until now. That would include lying at congressional hearings and on government forms about the full extent of their Russia contacts and about their financial dealings. And obstructing the FBI's probe into these matters. And the mother of all potential crimes that investigators continue to look at: Collusion between Team Trump and Team Putin related to 2016's election hacking.
If you believe the worst about the Trump-Russia-2016 allegations, you probably feel that American democracy and norms have been dealt a crippling blow. But if Trump does indeed pardon the key players in this mess — and with a Republican Congress showing zero appetite for impeachment even under the most dire circumstances — the destruction of the American Experiment will become a fait accompli. Stay tuned to this space.
And yet there's something especially grating about the unjust double standard that could, in theory, let Jeff Sessions skate free for his wrongdoing, immediately after his Draconian push — no matter how brief it turns out to be — to lock up as many Americans for as long as the statutes will allow. Not only would Sessions be government-forgiven for all of his sins, but — unlike thousands of citizens who've done much less…or nothing! — the taxpayers wouldn't even be able to seize his stuff.