Donald Trump delivered a speech in New Hampshire last week on the U.S. response the opioid crisis, and while there was no shortage of problems with the president’s vision, it was his call for increased executions that stood out.
About midway through the remarks, Trump insisted that policymakers need to approve new laws to empower the government to kill drug dealers. “Unless you have really, really powerful penalties, led by the death penalty for the really bad pushers and abusers, we are going to get nowhere,” he declared.
It was an unfortunate argument for all sorts of reasons, though MSNBC’s Danny Cevallos highlighted one of the most important: capital punishment is already available for drug traffickers in the federal criminal justice system. It’s just not used.
And as Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern explained, that’s where Jeff Sessions comes in.
But on Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions played along, issuing a memo in which he “strongly encourage[d] federal prosecutors” to seek capital sentences “for certain drug-related crimes,” including those that do not involve murder.
Sessions’ memo might be disturbing if it weren’t so pathetic. He must know that his entreaty will not lead to a single execution, but instead – at most – to millions of taxpayer dollars spent litigating appeals.
So why did the attorney general issue the memo? Probably because Sessions is still looking for ways to make Trump happy.
Remember, the president hasn’t exactly hid his frustrations with the attorney general following Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Trump reportedly threw an Oval Office tantrum in the spring, during which he called Sessions an “idiot,” in part because he wanted the attorney general to protect him from the Russia scandal, which became impossible when Sessions recused himself.
In the months that followed, Trump’s frustrations with the Alabama Republican didn’t fade. In September, the president hosted a dinner with conservative leaders, and when the conversation turned to Sessions, the president’s comments were “dripping with venom.” It was just one of many incidents in which Trump blasted his attorney general.
Last month, the president tweeted that Sessions’ approach to the White House’s political enemies is “DISGRACEFUL.”
It’s against this backdrop that Sessions keeps looking for new ways to prove his allegiance. Trump wants his perceived opponents in the FBI to be ousted? There’s Jeff Sessions, leaning on the FBI director to make personnel decisions that would make the president happy. The White House wants to convince the public that immigrants are a national security threat? There’s Jeff Sessions, releasing a wildly misleading report about terrorism.
Trump wants increased federal scrutiny of Democrats? There’s Jeff Sessions, assuring Republicans that the Justice Department is taking their anti-Clinton theories seriously. Trump is whining about governmental leaks? There’s Jeff Sessions, announcing a crackdown on leakers. Trump has a partisan vision about attacking so-called “sanctuary cities”? There’s Jeff Sessions, threatening some of the nation’s largest municipalities with subpoenas.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake made the compelling case in January that it’s “looking more and more like Jeff Sessions is doing Trump’s political dirty work.”
And that was before Sessions fired former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, one of Trump’s favorite targets.