WASHINGTON — With his future as the nation’s top prosecutor in doubt after a week of blistering public scorn from the president, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is flying to El Salvador on Thursday seeking ways to stamp out the brutal street gang MS-13.
As the Trump administration tries to build support for its crackdown on illegal immigration, it has increasingly tried to make the gang with Central American ties the face of the problem. Recent killings tied to its members have stoked the national debate on immigration.
Trump praised Sessions when he announced his mission to eradicate the gang in April. But the attorney general has since fallen out of favor with his onetime political ally.
In day after day of public humiliation, Trump rued his decision to choose Sessions for his Cabinet and left the former Alabama senator’s prospects dangling. Trump’s intensifying criticism has fueled speculation that the attorney general may step down even if the president stops short of firing him. But Sessions is showing no outward signs that he is planning to quit, and on Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that Trump “wants him to lead the department.”
“Look, you can be disappointed in someone and still want them to continue to do their job,” she said.
Forging ahead with the tough-on-crime agenda that once endeared him to Trump, Sessions plans to meet his Salvadoran counterpart, Attorney General Douglas Melendez, before convening with other law enforcement officials on what his program calls a transnational anti-gang task force. He will tour a detention center and meet former members of MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, which Sessions has called a top threat to public safety in the U.S.
The gang is an international criminal enterprise, with tens of thousands of members in several Central American countries and many U.S. states. The gang originated in immigrant communities in Los Angeles in the 1980s then entrenched itself in Central America when its leaders were deported.
The gang is known for hacking and stabbing victims with machetes, drug dealing, prostitution and other rackets. Its recruits are middle- and high-school students predominantly in immigrant communities and those who try to leave risk violent retribution, law enforcement officials have said.
Its members have been accused in a spate of bloodshed that included the massacre of four young men in a Long Island, New York, park and the killing of a suspected gang rival inside a deli. The violence has drawn attention from members of Congress and Trump, who has boasted about efforts to arrest and deport MS-13 members across the country.
Both he and Sessions have blamed Obama-era border policies for allowing the gang’s ranks to flourish, though that administration took unprecedented steps to target its finances.
The trip was planned before Trump’s broadsides against his attorney general, and it remains to be seen whether his work in El Salvador will help mend their fractured relationship. Their shared view, rare among the political class, that illegal immigration was the nation’s most vexing problem was what united Sessions and Trump.