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Jeff Sessions is dramatically reshaping Justice Department policy

August 24, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Behind the scenes, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been making a series of significant and controversial changes. Lisa Desjardins reports on how Sessions has been one of the key forces executing the president’s agenda and reversing the Obama legacy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first, the pace of the news cycle feels like a blistering swirl recently. North Korea and Charlottesville have bumped the Russia investigation out of the headlines. And President Trump’s latest attacks on Republican congressional leaders, as we’ve been hearing, have overshadowed his very public criticism of his own attorney general.

But as our Lisa Desjardins reports, behind the scenes, at the helm of the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions is taking action, making significant and controversial changes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: And that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties —

JEFF SESSIONS, Attorney General: And that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties —

LISA DESJARDINS: That was February, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions was just starting out in his new post. In the months since, while headlines focused more on his meetings with Russians and the criticism hurled at him publicly by President Trump. But behind the scenes, Sessions has been one of the key forces executing the president’s agenda.

JEFF SESSIONS: So, today, I have this message for our friends in the intelligence community: the Department of Justice is open for business.

LISA DESJARDINS: In the past month alone, the attorney general has launched multiple changes to shake up how his agency works. Sessions stepped up leak investigations, tripling the number of cases. And he started a review that could change the rules for subpoenaing reporters.

Next, he flipped the department’s position in a major voting rights case, from opposing Ohio’s removal of thousands of names on its voter rolls, to supporting the state’s decision.

Those are just the recent developments, bringing Sessions praise from the right and concern from others.

Chiraag Bains is a former justice official who served under President Obama.

CHIRAAG BAINS, Former Justice Department Official: The attorney general has put a stamp on the department and shifted the priorities in a way that I don’t even think even some of his greatest critics or skeptics would have expected. On civil rights enforcement, on crime policy, on prioritizing immigration, it has been fast, it has been dramatic, and I expect it will continue.

JEFF SESSIONS: I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most —

LISA DESJARDINS: It is a law-and-order push. Sessions has ordered tougher sentencing, including for non-violent drug offenders, and a clampdown on so-called sanctuary cities, cutting grants to places that offer safe harbor for undocumented immigrants.

He also reopened the possibility of using private prisons long-term, reversing the Obama-era policy.

And on police powers, Sessions said he’s reviewing the binding agreements, called consent decrees, the agency uses to force police in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere to reform their practices. Under Obama, those were seen as a way to limit abuse. Sessions indicated they hurt the police.

JEFF SESSIONS: This Department of Justice will not sign consent decrees that will cost more lives by handcuffing the police rather than handcuffing the criminals.

LISA KRIGSTEN, Former Justice Department Official: But it’s too early to say there has been a dramatic shift.

LISA DESJARDINS: Lisa Krigsten served at Justice under former President George W. Bush, and she highlights the incoming staff at the agency, whom she sees as steady professionals.

LISA KRIGSTEN: These people are not firebrands. Certainly as with every election, this one has consequences and there may be different activity that’s spotlighted. But I think that we’re going to see through these hires, a very traditional, consistent enforcement effort through the department.

LISA DESJARDINS: There’s also the question of how some of these changes are playing within the agency, which is made up of longtime or career staff and political appointees.

Something unusual has happened under Attorney General Sessions. Contrary to common practice, no career attorneys at the Civil Rights Division signed on when the agency flipped positions in the Ohio voting rights case. And separately, none signed on when the agency argued that anti-discrimination laws do not protect gays and lesbians in the workplace.

(voice-over): Krigsten says changes in policy are not unusual — a new administration brings a new view on the law.

LISA KRIGSTEN: But when a new leader comes in, such as Attorney General Sessions, he and his team will bring a certain interpretation of what that statute means, or what the best way to enforce a particular statute is, and that is within the purview of an attorney general.

LISA DESJARDINS: But others fear a growing rift between the political and the non-political staff.

Again, Chiraag Bains.

CHIRAAG BAINS, Former Justice Department Official: To work on a case for years, pushing forward your best view of the case based on the facts and the law, and then to have it all switch because of an election, because of new political leadership coming into place, is, I think, a major blow to morale, and I think disturbs people’s notion of — that these cases are actually governed by the rule of law.

JEFF SESSIONS, Attorney General: We are going to meet our responsibility to enforce the law, with judgment and fairness.

LISA DESJARDINS: A former prosecutor, Sessions has long had outspoken thoughts on justice. Now, he’s turning them into action.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins.

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