U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Justice Department on Capitol Hill in Washington...
AARON P. BERNSTEIN

Jeff Sessions’ competence at DOJ called into question

Updated

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s career was ultimately derailed by an avalanche of corruption allegations, but there was a related problem that was too often overlooked: the far-right EPA chief was careless in pursuit of his own goals.

The New York Times  reported in April that Pruitt was in such a rush to gut environmental protections, he ended up undermining his efforts with sloppy, politically motivated work. Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard, told the Times, “In their rush to get things done, [Pruitt and his team are] failing to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. And they’re starting to stumble over a lot of trip wires. They’re producing a lot of short, poorly crafted rulemakings that are not likely to hold up in court.”

Similarly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is likely to leave his post fairly soon because Donald Trump believes he’s done too little to shield the White House and Republicans from federal law enforcement. But like Pruitt, Sessions is also burdened by questions about his competence. The New York Times  reported today:

During his 20 months in office, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has swept in perhaps the most dramatic political shift in memory at the Justice Department, from the civil rights-centered agenda of the Obama era to one that favors his hard-line conservative views on immigration, civil rights and social issues.

Now, discontent and infighting have taken hold at the Justice Department, in part because Mr. Sessions was so determined to carry out that transformation that he ignored dissent, at times putting the Trump administration on track to lose in court and prompting high-level departures, according to interviews over several months with two dozen current and former career department lawyers who worked under Mr. Sessions.

Reading the article, my first instinct was that it was part of a campaign to help justify Sessions’ ouster: the president doesn’t trust the attorney general, so Trump loyalists told the New York Times that Sessions is incompetent.

And while there may be something to that, the truth of the matter is, the questions about Sessions’ competence are rooted in fact.

Consider a specific example:

In one instance, Mr. Sessions directly questioned a career lawyer, Stephen Buckingham, who was asked to find ways to file a lawsuit to crack down on sanctuary laws protecting undocumented immigrants. Mr. Buckingham, who had worked at the Justice Department for about a decade, wrote in a brief that he could find no legal grounds for such a case.

Reminding Mr. Buckingham of the attorney general’s bona fides as an immigration hard-liner, Mr. Sessions asked him to come to a different conclusion, according to three people who worked with alongside Mr. Buckingham in the federal programs division and were briefed on the exchange.

Sessions’ post-policy attitude prevailed – the Justice Department filed its lawsuit – but the triumph was short-lived. Buckingham, who gave the attorney general good advice, ended up resigning, and the case against so-called “sanctuary cities” ended up losing in court, just as Buckingham had warned.

If Trump fires the attorney general – or more likely, when he fires the attorney general – it would be the first domino in a series of legally provocative steps that would soon follow, affecting, among other things, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russia scandal. For those concerned about the integrity of the system, the president’s federal-law-enforcement purges are a serious threat.

But let’s not pretend Sessions is a good attorney general. He’s not. Both observations can be true: Trump firing his A.G. would have bad consequences, and Sessions is a bad A.G.