How Jeff Sessions Is Laying the Groundwork for Authoritarian Action

(Photo: AP/Jeff Roberson)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks to local, state, and federal law enforcement officials in St. Louis on March 31.

With Donald Trump appearing to be on the verge of blowing up the world, it stands to reason that people might not be paying attention to his attorney general’s attempt to consolidate support for the administration among local law enforcement by selling off the rights of the American people. Add to that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s suggestion on Thursday that Hitler never used chemical weapons “on his own people,” or revelations of the FBI’s investigation of a former Trump foreign policy adviser as a possible Russian espionage asset, and your brain may have just absorbed all it can process about the present political moment.

But while you weren’t looking, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been courting local and federal law enforcement with the promise of lax oversight of police abuses against citizens, punishment for cities that choose not to use local resources for the hunting of undocumented immigrants, and a renewal of the so-called war on drugs that for decades was little more than a war on black and brown people. On Tuesday, Sessions disbanded the independent, nonpartisan National Commission on Forensic Science—the people who evaluate the scientific soundness of evidence admitted in criminal trials. The idea seems to be to task law enforcement with deciding the means by which it determines which evidence is permissible, even as the administration seeks ways to lock up people on the pretext of drug possession. The responsibility for making recommendations on the scientific soundness of various means of evidence collection will now fall to prosecutors.

But it doesn’t stop there. On April 4, Sessions demonstrated his contempt for his department’s past interventions on local law enforcement in jurisdictions where abuses of citizens are shown to be systemic, and promised to lighten up on the use of consent decrees that place offending police departments under Justice Department monitoring for a period of time. He’s also been on a speaking tour of threats against the (mostly Democratic) political leadership of the nation’s great cities, promising to slash their federal funding unless local law enforcement is turned into a locally funded arm of the federal government by participating in the round-up of immigrants who don’t have papers. (So much for the right’s love of local control.) For good measure, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, is calling on Republicans in Congress to include these proposed funding penalties against so-called sanctuary cities in the spending bill Congress must soon take up in order to keep the government running—a move that could lead to a government shutdown.

We need to sit a minute to take this in, because surely it cannot mean what it looks like, right? At a moment when the White House is occupied by a unilaterally acting authoritarian populist, his top law enforcement officer is signaling an expansion of law enforcement powers and the reduction of rights for citizens.

By now, every well-informed person knows that the war on drugs failed to ameliorate America’s thirst for illegal substances, and that the war’s selective targeting yielded an absurdly high proportion of non-white prisoners. Soon, those law enforcement entities can return to entering into evidence, without compunction, test results yielded by methods the forensic science panel had deemed unreliable. If police have all the power, who needs reliable evidence?

The enforcement of authoritarianism in a sprawling nation made up of myriad entities requires the buy-in of law enforcement at all levels and in all jurisdictions. These aggressive moves by Sessions are too easily written off as rhetorical red meat for the Trump base, even as the man himself reneges on campaign promises (such as avoiding further involvement in the armed conflicts of the Middle East). But Sessions’s moves are far more than that. Each of these actions and threats by Sessions plays a part in laying an infrastructure for the enforcement of the administration’s will, whether by legal or extra-legal means.

How easy will it be to quash dissent when a pinch of pot and some bad science could see you locked up for years? I’m guessing pretty easy.

Of all the many things warranting protest and the scrutiny of Congress, this is the big one. Should Sessions prevail, the people’s ability to peacefully resist unjust actions by its government will be gravely diminished.

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