As Donald Trump nears the end of his first 100 days, media commentary focuses primarily on how little he has achieved in comparison to other presidents. It’s a mistake, however, to discount the threat that the Trump administration poses to our fundamental rights. His attorney general, former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, is a case in point.
Sessions has set out with a vengeance to transform the Department of Justice into a Department of Injustice. He’s been hindered by the incompetence that characterizes this administration. He’s home alone in his department, with no nominations offered for the heads of top DOJ units — the civil rights, criminal or national security divisions. His deputies — Nos. 2 and 3 in the DOJ — have been nominated but not confirmed.
That has slowed but not stopped Sessions’ efforts to rollback basic rights. He’s reversed the Justice Department’s position of challenging voter identification laws; he deems the Voting Rights Act too “intrusive.” Now the DOJ will intervene in favor of states that pass discriminatory measures to restrict access to the ballot. The right to vote — the fundamental right of a democracy — will now depend on the willingness of judges to stand up for the truth, as U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos did in ignoring the DOJ intervention and ruling that the Texas ID law was “passed, at least in part, with a discriminatory purpose.”
Sessions has issued orders to revive the old, failed war on drugs. The promising bipartisan efforts to reform sentencing provisions to end the mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders are to be abandoned. Sessions wants to revive private prisons and insure them a steady stream of prisoners. People of color, particularly young African-American men, will be the greatest victims of this injustice.
Sessions has called for a “review” of all the reform agreements that Obama’s Civil Rights Division has reached with police forces. His DOJ sought to delay implementation of a consent decree reached in Baltimore in the wake of the Freddy Gray killing. Sessions scorns these agreements as “political expediency” that will “handcuff the police.” In Baltimore, the judge ignored the DOJ’s efforts to impede reform. But despite the outcry at the killings of young black men and women, Sessions is clearly telling police they can act with impunity once more.
And Sessions has been point on the administration’s efforts to ramp up deportation, terrorize immigrants and defend the president’s unconstitutional Muslim ban. He expressed amazement that a “judge sitting on an island in the Pacific” could overturn the president’s order. That judge was a federal district court justice in the state of Hawaii, part of the union for 58 years.
Sessions has issued letters to nine sanctuary cities, counties and states, including the state of California, New York City, Chicago and Cook County, threatening to deny federal grant funds — largely funds for local law enforcement — unless they commit to cooperating with the administration’s sweeping assaults on immigrants. This arbitrary assertion of federal power is particularly remarkable from Sessions, who as a senator declaimed endlessly about the glories of states’ rights. Luckily, Sessions wasn’t at Herod’s side when Mary and Joseph sought sanctuary in Egypt with the baby Jesus.
The sanctuary jurisdictions have vowed to resist Sessions edicts. Speaking for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, spokesman Matt McGrath noted: “The administration’s plan to deny federal funds to cities that are standing up for their values is unconstitutional, and Chicago is proud to stand with 34 cities and counties across the country in asking a federal court to prevent the federal government from illegally withholding federal funds.”
New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio declared that New York City will “remain a city welcoming of immigrants who have helped make our city the safest big city in the nation. Any attempt to cut NYPD funding for the nation’s top terror target will be aggressively fought in court. We won’t back down from protecting New Yorkers from terror — or from an overzealous administration fixated on xenophobia and needless division.”
The assault on rights — for the LGBT community, for people of color, for women, for immigrants — is clear. Efforts to rollback voting rights, civil rights, police reform and sentencing reform have already begun. The resistance — from courts, from decent public officials, from activists and citizens of conscience — has been and will be fierce. Sessions’ Department of Injustice is measure of the damage that Trump can do. Instead of making America a more perfect union, Americans will have to mobilize to defend their rights from the very department that is tasked with protecting them.