The Return and Triumph of Jeff Sessions

Two months ago, the attorney general seemed to be on the outs, but the administration’s DACA policy matches his own views more closely than the president’s.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Two months ago, Jeff Sessions looked like toast. But Tuesday morning, as he stood at a lectern at the Justice Department, the attorney general seemed to feel more like the toast of the town.

President Trump’s decision to have Sessions announce the end of the DACA program was a dodge on top of a punt: First, the White House tried to push the ball into Congress’s court by adding a six-month delay to the rescission; then Trump elected to send a Cabinet member out rather than making a potentially perilous political announcement himself. But for Sessions, who was grinning and ebullient at times during the statement, this was no hardship duty. For years as a U.S. senator, Sessions railed against illegal immigration and tried, mostly to no avail, to get the federal government to enforce laws more strictly. Now he stood as attorney general, announcing the end of the Obama-era policy to allow undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to stay in the country.

“As the attorney general, it is my duty to ensure that the laws of the United States are enforced and that the constitutional order is upheld,” Sessions said. “No greater good can be done for the overall health and well-being of our republic than preserving and strengthening the impartial rule of law. Societies where the rule of law is treasured are societies that tend to flourish and succeed. Societies where the rule of law is subject to political whims and personal biases tend to become societies afflicted by corruption, poverty, and human suffering.”

In late July, Sessions was the subject of a campaign of aggression by the White House, as Trump took shots at his attorney general, once one of his closest political allies, in interviews and tweets. There was talk of Sessions resigning or being fired. And yet come September, here Sessions was, making an announcement more closely aligned with his own views than with the president’s past statements. He announced the decision as his own, only mentioning the president in the closing moments of his statement—he did not take questions—though he did praise Trump when he did.

During the campaign, Trump promised to immediately end what he called Obama’s “executive amnesty,” with his focus falling more on the “amnesty” side of things than on the mechanism of the executive order (though Trump did repeatedly promise to reverse Obama’s executive orders). Once elected, however, Trump began to moderate his language. He delayed ending DACA, and at a press conference in February, he seemed conflicted.

“We’re going to show great heart,” he promised. “DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you. To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids, in many cases—not in all cases. In some of the cases they’re having DACA and they’re gang members and they’re drug dealers too. But you have some absolutely incredible kids—I would say mostly—they were brought here in such a way—it's a very, very tough subject.”

He added: “It's a very difficult thing for me. Because, you know, I love these kids. I love kids. I have kids and grandkids. And I find it very, very hard doing what the law says exactly to do. And you know, the law is rough. I'm not talking about new laws. I'm talking the existing law is very rough. It's very, very rough. As far as the new order, the new order is going to be very much tailored to what I consider to be a very bad decision, but we can tailor the order to that decision and get just about everything, in some ways more.”

Sessions’s comments on Tuesday were a world away from that. There was no attempt to “get just about everything, in some ways more.” The attorney general also implicitly rebutted Trump’s comments about heart. “We are a people of compassion and we are a people of law,” he said. “But there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws.”

Sessions particularly emphasized the constitutional aspect of the law, another difference from Trump’s February comments. “The executive branch, through DACA, deliberately sought to achieve what the legislative branch specifically refused to authorize on multiple occasions,” Sessions said. “Such an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.” That’s an argument for which he began laying the groundwork during his confirmation hearings back in January, when he told senators that DACA was “very questionable, in my opinion, constitutionally.”

Meanwhile, White House aides weren’t even sure the president understood the policy Sessions was announcing, according to The New York Times:

As late as one hour before the decision was to be announced, administration officials privately expressed concern that Mr. Trump might not fully grasp the details of the steps he was about to take, and when he discovered their full impact, would change his mind, according to a person familiar with their thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity without authorization to comment on it.

The only real concession to Trump’s somewhat softer-line approach to DACA was the six-month delay in rescinding the policy. The idea, at least in theory, is that if Congress wishes to act to protect those affected by DACA, it can. Many members of Congress in both parties have counseled against ending DACA, but anyone who has watched Congress over the last few months will have no illusions about the likelihood of the body moving forward, especially with so many pressing matters (a debt-ceiling increase, government funding, tax reform, health care, etc.) already on the agenda, and especially if it means Republicans having to fight a land war with Trump’s base over immigration.

The president has good reasons for wanting Congress to act. Deporting hundreds of thousands of sympathetic young people who are enmeshed in communities will be both expensive and politically damaging. If Trump can convince Congress to act, he will be able to tell his supporters he ended DACA as promised, without having to face the consequences from the broader electorate

In a Tuesday morning tweet and in his own statement on the end of DACA, Trump accentuated the chance for Congress to act. “I am not going to just cut DACA off, but rather provide a window of opportunity for Congress to finally act,” he said in the latter. “Congress now has the opportunity to advance responsible immigration reform that puts American jobs and American security first.” During a briefing on Tuesday, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders expressed not just a hope but an expectation that the legislature would solve any complications caused by the rescission. “We have confidence that Congress is going to step up and do their job,” she said.

Sessions, meanwhile, has no interest in Congress granting amnesty to those covered by DACA, and as a non-elected official, he bears no political risk if it does not. His priority, as it has long been, is to get undocumented immigrants out of the country. So unsurprisingly, his own statements focused less on a legislative fix, though he acknowledged it was the prerogative of the House and Senate.

Sessions said the wind-down of DACA would “fulfill the desire of this administration to create a time period for Congress to act—should it so choose,” adding, “Congress should carefully and thoughtfully pursue the types of reforms that are right for the American people.” The attorney general’s own advice to Congress would clearly be not to act. That is not the president’s view, but so far, Sessions’s vision on DACA is the one that’s ascendant.