MOBILE, Ala. — In a rare public appearance since his resignation last November, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions Thursday night gave a ringing defense of his tenure as head of the Justice Department. It was and is a defense well worth making.
Sessions was speaking in his hometown of Mobile, Ala., at a dinner celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Alabama Policy Institute, one of the first and most successful of the nation’s growing number of conservative state think tanks. API’s co-founder and longtime president, Gary Palmer, is now in Congress, heading the House Republican Policy Committee.
About ten or 12 minutes into his 35-minute address, Sessions discussed his two-year stint as AG. Referring only by inference to President Trump’s criticisms of his recusal from the Russia-related investigation that roiled politics for two years, Sessions’ tone was wry and a bit self-deprecating.
“I expected from the start that my job would entail lots of controversies,” he said. “Well I can say that in that regard it even exceeded my expectations. [Pause] But I did my best … ”
Interrupted by a standing ovation from his hometown crowd, he finally was able to be heard again with a simple, declaratory statement that presaged the rest of his speech: “We did a lot of good in the Department of Justice.” He cited an August 2017 New York Times news article saying that “Mr. Sessions is carrying out the president’s conservative agenda with head-turning speed, roiling critics on the left and leaving some career staff members within the department disoriented by the sea change.”
Sessions began his list with an overall philosophical point he said he insisted the department honor in all its action – namely, that the text of the Constitution and statutes should be read closely, not expansively.
“Words do have meaning,” he said. “The Left manipulates the meanings of words to advance their agenda. We put a stop to that.”
On specific policy changes or advancements, Sessions’ list was long. He said he changed policy to put an end to the abuse of “third-party settlements,” by which the Justice Department used its power to force financial judgments that then were paid to (inevitably left-wing) nongovernmental advocacy organizations. He claimed progress in fighting “nationwide injunctions,” noting that after the department under his guidance began making legal arguments against them, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch had taken up the cause, and he expects more justices to follow when new cases arise.
Sessions said his department took the lead in protecting and restoring religious liberty after assaults on our “first freedom” by the Obama administration, and noted several court victories on that front. He said they made advances on protecting free speech on college campuses, on protecting the rights of women’s health centers not to be forced to make abortion referrals, on supporting “the men and women in blue” in police forces around the country, and on reversing what had been an uptick in violent crime nationwide.
In a speech last month honoring Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein provided specific examples of how the department under Sessions made progress on these fronts, especially on reversing the hike in violent crime.
Also, Rosenstein credited Sessions with having “restored the rule of law to the immigration system, by adding prosecutors and judges to the southwestern border, hiring scores of new immigration judges, and expediting the immigration adjudication process. The department protected national security by defending elections from foreign interference, created a cyber-digital task force, launched an initiative to combat Chinese economic espionage, pursued terrorist financing schemes, [and] devoted additional resources to investigate leaks of classified information.”
Conservative trench warriors know what Sessions accomplished. J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department whistleblower and frequent Fox News guest who now heads the Public Interest Legal Foundation, put it plainly in an interview Friday morning: “He was the best Attorney General you could have confirmed in 2017. He was more aligned with the president's core agenda than anyone who could replace him."