In February, 2016, a full nine months before the presidential election and days before Super Tuesday, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions endorsed Donald Trump, the first sitting senator to do so. I recall being in a meeting of several other Washington conservatives with Mr. Sessions shortly after his endorsement. Mr. Trump, said Mr. Sessions “is the candidate who is the best advocate for our ideas. If he wins, he has the best chance of putting the country back onto the conservative mold left by Ronald Reagan.”
The endorsement was nothing if not a blow to a couple of Mr. Sessions’ colleagues who were also in the race, and who Mr. Sessions knew much better than he knew Mr. Trump, most notably Ted Cruz. Recognizing that his political career was probably over if Mr. Trump lost, Mr. Sessions closed by saying “I hope I’m right.”
Mr. Sessions has encountered some rough sledding in his first 10 months as attorney general, including being on the brink of being told “you’re fired.” The Washington press corps, the entire liberal establishment, and the Democratic congressional caucus practically get hives every time they hear his name, as was so evident in hours-long hearings recently before both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, where Mr. Sessions was raked over the coals, largely for his perceived involvement in the so-called Russian connection.
But despite a dearth of confirmed assistant attorneys general and other aides, Mr. Sessions has largely succeeded in shutting down much of the Obama-era leftism that was so alive in the Justice Department when he got there and setting it on a Reagan-like path.
In a front-page story just last week, a Washington Post headline announced that “While eyes are on Russia, Sessions dramatically reshapes the Justice Department,” going on to say that “the attorney general has been among the most effective of the Cabinet secretaries — implementing Trump’s conservative policy agenda even as the president publicly and privately toys with firing him over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia case.”
His supporters, according to The Post, “say Sessions has restored a by-the-book interpretation of federal law and taken an aggressive stance toward enforcing it.”
One of those supporters is Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General Ed Meese. I asked Mr. Meese about what he thought of Mr. Sessions’ tenure to Justice so far. “During his relatively short time in office,” Mr. Meese told me, “Jeff Sessions has already achieved a remarkable list of accomplishments. He has restored integrity to the Office of Attorney General and reasserted fidelity to the Constitution.
“Under his leadership,” Mr. Meese continued, “the Department of Justice again supports effective law enforcement and is working closely with state and local public safety agencies.” Mr. Sessions, said the former attorney general, “has adopted or changed numerous policies and practices of the Department, based on sound principles, common sense, fairness, and the attainment of a just result in investigations and litigation.” Not bad praise, from one who should know.
Mr. Obama and Eric Holder, his first attorney general, whose leftist views were largely identical to Mr. Obama’s, knew that Justice could be used to transform America better than about any other part of the government. Accordingly, policies on civil rights, crime, immigration, environmental enforcement and many of the left’s favorite causes were implemented by liberal hard-line assistants and deputies. So when Mr. Sessions arrived at Justice in February of this year, he had a veritable plethora of opportunity to return the department to the rule of law.
Regarding criminal justice, Mr. Sessions has returned the department to actually prosecuting and locking up criminal offenders — based on the notion — outlandish to the left — that effective policing and incarceration are key to reducing crime and protecting the public rather than the Obama campaign of reducing the prison population as much as possible.
Mr. Sessions has directed prosecutors to seek the harshest penalties for major drug offenders, reversing another Obama directive; he has reversed earlier policies on the legitimate use of asset forfeiture to squeeze major drug rings; he has vastly improved relationships with and support for local law enforcement. Most importantly, he has set the tone, across the country, that the federal government is serious about controlling crime and protecting law-abiding citizens from criminal activity — a much-needed reform that will, over the coming years, have a major impact on reducing crime.
Needless to say, the left is apoplectic about what is happening to the Justice. In a recent editorial on the NBC News site, liberal commentator James Braxton Peterson laments that Mr. Sessions cares little about Black Lives Matter and police brutality, but instead actually believes that “strong policing and incarceration are key to maintaining law and civil order” — which, the author contends, are just another way for the racist Trump administration to lock up more minorities, noting that “the consequences of aggressive policing have serious negative outcomes in poor communities of color.”
Justice, like most of the other Cabinet departments, remains short-handed in terms of confirmed assistant attorneys general, although there is a long line waiting for the Senate to act. Once they are all in place, conservatives can rest assured that they will have no better friend in the Trump administration than Jeff Sessions. Even without those assistants, in fact, they already do.
• Alfred S. Regnery is chairman of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. He served in the Reagan Justice Department.