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Jeff Sessions's Exit Interview

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 11/8/2018
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Jeff Sessions says he is “confident” that Robert Mueller’s probe of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election will be handled “appropriately and with justification.” In his only interview as he was leaving the Justice Department Wednesday, the former attorney general tells me if he had it to do over, he would still follow the advice of the department’s career ethics officers and recuse himself from supervising the Mueller inquiry—the decision that infuriated President Trump. “No one is above supervision,” he says. He hadn’t expected the investigation to last so long, he said, and called the duration “unhealthy.” But he says “the country is committed to this course.”

The discreet, disciplined and courteous Mr. Sessions, 71, declines to comment on his discussions with White House officials about his dismissal. He says he hasn’t decided on his future plans: “I want some family time and to let my head clear.” Although he says he is now drawn more to executive than legislative public service, there’s been speculation he may run in 2020 for his old Senate seat, which Democrat Doug Jones won in a special election a year ago. Mr. Trump may live to regret the cavalier way he treated his still-loyal former adviser and cabinet member.

On what turned out to be the last day of his 21-month tenure, Mr. Sessions arrived in his office on the fifth floor of the Justice Department shortly after 7 a.m., a bit later than his usual 6:15. He had stayed up late watching election returns.

Just before 8, his senior staff meeting got under way. He signed an order setting forth principles the federal government must follow before it can sue a local police force, school or other government entity and manage or oversee its operations. At 9:30, he met in a secure room with officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for one of his thrice-weekly briefings on terrorist threats and counterterror operations.

Then, shortly before Mr. Trump’s postelection press conference, Mr. Sessions took the first of two unscheduled calls from White House chief of staff John Kelly. The president wanted Mr. Sessions to resign—immediately.

I spent the past 10 days with Mr. Sessions, interviewing other officials, friends and advisers. These conversations exposed an irony: No cabinet member has been subjected to more sustained abuse from the president, yet arguably not one has done as much to advance Mr. Trump’s agenda.

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That leads to some mixed verdicts on Mr. Sessions’s tenure. Democrats and liberals applaud him for protecting Mr. Mueller by recusing himself from the probe, and for defending his department and its personnel. They also criticize his longstanding support for the administration’s immigration and “law and order” policies, not to mention his threats to cut federal funds for so-called sanctuary cities and his “zero tolerance” policy toward aliens illegally crossing the southern border. 

Mr. Sessions has conservative critics too. Passionate Trump supporters argue that he should have prosecuted Hillary Clinton and investigated misuse of surveillance warrants to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Defenders counter that Mr. Sessions was scrupulous in enforcing the law impartially, and loyal to the text of the Constitution. He made a priority of fighting crime and protecting religious liberty.

Small gestures—such as ensuring that the family of every police officer killed or badly wounded in the line of duty gets a personally signed letter of condolence within 48 hours—helped make Mr. Sessions “the most pro-law enforcement attorney general in years,” says Associate Deputy Attorney General Steven H. Cook. His decision to end predecessor Eric Holder’s restrictions on civil forfeiture—the seizing of assets from criminal suspects—wins praise from former prosecutor Reeve Swainston: “Sessions lifted the constraints that so frustrated those of us battling drug cartels.”

He pushed back hard against “judicial activism,” particularly the practice of issuing nationwide injunctions. “A single federal district court’s ruling should not bind the entire nation,” he says in an interview last week. District courts have issued more such orders in Mr. Trump’s first two years than in Barack Obama’s two terms.

Several Justice Department lawyers say uncertainty about Mr. Sessions’s future was stressful and depressing. “Political limbo is the worst,” as one puts it. But another says Mr. Trump’s relentless attacks had helped Mr. Sessions restore the department’s sense of independence.

If Mr. Sessions was troubled, he hid it well. The department’s “Energizer Bunny,” as one lawyer calls him, maintained a full schedule of meetings, travel, speeches and visits with law-enforcement officers and prosecutors until Mr. Trump announced his dismissal in a Wednesday tweet. Neither Mr. Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence called him to thank him for his service.

Some of Mr. Sessions’s contribution defies measurement. By defending free speech on university campuses, he made intellectual freedom a departmental priority. In his reserved, courtly way, he brought focus, discipline and predictability to a sprawling empire with 115,000 employees. He also encouraged department officials beyond “main Justice” to experiment with what works best in their towns, cities and states. “Perhaps because he was a U.S. attorney for a dozen years, U.S. attorneys have enjoyed more independence than we did before,” says Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts.

Several lawyers called reports of low morale exaggerated. Stan Pottinger, who served as an assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Nixon administration, says such fluctuations of bureaucratic mood aren’t unusual—but because officials at the Justice Department focus on enforcing the law, “morale rarely plummets or soars as it does in other agencies.”

There was little sign of hostility to Mr. Sessions among the 200 or so officials who gathered, and offered sustained applause, when he said goodbye Wednesday. The outpouring was so warm that the normally reserved Mr. Sessions was moved nearly to tears. “It was heartwarming,” he says. “I told them that we were all part of the executive branch and served at the pleasure of the president, that we had protected the legal process which was vital to our work, and that we should all feel proud.”

Mr. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Candidate Trump. He gave up a safe Senate seat after two decades to join the administration. He would have every right to be bitter about being demeaned for months by his boss as a “traitor,” an “idiot” and a “dumb Southerner.” But if he is, Mr. Sessions is too gracious and loyal to say so. “We’ve had a good run,” he says. “It’s been an adventure.”

Ms. Miller is a contributing editor of City Journal and a Fox News contributor.


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