For Sessions, Trump’s constant attacks may define his legacy

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In this Aug. 22, 2018, file photo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference regarding the country's opioid epidemic in Cleveland. Sessions has pushed President Donald Trump's agenda at the Justice Department and spent 20 years before that as a champion of conservative causes in the Senate. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)
In this Aug. 22, 2018, file photo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference regarding the country’s opioid epidemic in Cleveland. Sessions has pushed President Donald Trump’s agenda at the Justice Department and spent 20 years before that as a champion of conservative causes in the Senate. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

Washington (AP) — Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vigorously pushed President Donald Trump’s agenda at the Justice Department, and before that, spent 20 years championing conservative causes in the Senate.

Yet as Sessions enters what may be the final stretch of his Cabinet tenure, those efforts are at risk of being eclipsed by his boss’ frequent verbal attacks that have made Sessions seem like a presidential punching bag. It’s a role he never asked for, though perhaps could have anticipated.

The steady diatribes, most recently a tweet excoriating Sessions for the federal indictments of two Republican congressmen, reflect Trump’s outrage over the special counsel’s Russia investigation. They are all the more striking because Sessions is the Trump agency leader most clearly aligned with Trump’s values.

Sessions’ allies say his treatment by Trump is overshadowing the attorney general’s work on violent crime, illegal immigration and opioid addiction, and clouding a legacy of achievement that in other times would be more broadly cheered in conservative circles.

“There are folks that ask me constantly, ‘What’s wrong with Sessions?'” said former Cincinnati mayor Ken Blackwell, a longtime friend. The drumbeat of criticism is “eroding what otherwise would be a very respectable portfolio,” he said.

“The punches that he throws in Sessions’ direction are landing and they’re distorting the track record,” Blackwell added, “and they’re having people start to question not just his loyalty to the president but his competency — when his record is a very successful record and could be compared to any other Cabinet secretary.”

Sessions has, for the most part, absorbed the blows quietly while marching through a tough-on-crime agenda. He has encouraged more aggressive marijuana enforcement, directed prosecutors to bring the most serious charges they can prove, announced a zero-tolerance policy for immigrants crossing the border illegally and targeted the MS-13 gang.

The hard-line principles that once placed him far to the right of many other Republican senators remain intact at the Justice Department, where critics fear Sessions is eroding civil rights protections by not defending affirmative action, police reform or transgender legal rights.

But neither Sessions’ work as the nation’s top law enforcement official nor his loyalty seems to resonate with Trump. The president has belittled his attorney general since Sessions stepped aside from an investigation into ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. Trump interpreted the move, which legal experts said was inevitable given Sessions’ campaign support, as an act of disloyalty that led to special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment.

Trump has said that if he had known Sessions would withdraw from overseeing the investigation, he would not have picked the Alabama Republican to be attorney general. The president now asserts that Sessions never has had control of the department. He also accuses Sessions of failing to aggressively pursue Trump’s political rivals and to investigate potential bias in the Russia investigation.

Trump told Bloomberg News last week that Sessions’ job was safe through the November election. The president gave no reassurances about after that. Meanwhile, the solid Republican support in the Senate that has buffered Sessions is showing signs of cracking.

The most recent broadside, about the charges against the two GOP lawmakers, was stunning for its norm-shattering obliteration of the bright line between the White House and Justice Department. Trump said the indictments, coming before an election when control of Congress is at stake, had left “two easy wins now in doubt.” Trump ended the tweet with a sarcastic “Good job Jeff.”

“You’re harassing the attorney general for not dealing with political bias at the DOJ and then conversely accusing him of not engaging in political bias at the DOJ,” said Cameron Smith, a former Sessions counsel in the Senate. “Those cannot both be simultaneously consistent positions.”

Sessions didn’t respond to that criticism, though in the past year he has issued statements saying the department will not bend to political considerations and that he always has served with integrity and honor. His only mentions of Trump are laudatory, and in public appearances, Sessions is far more likely to focus on the work that has impassioned him for decades than on the controversies around him.

The criticism has created an unusual dynamic where Trump-aligned Republicans who ordinarily would praise Sessions are joining in the condemnation, while progressives opposed to his agenda fear that his firing for political reasons could destabilize democracy.

Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department civil rights chief in the Obama administration, said she believed Sessions was terrible for civil rights but she did not want him dismissed as a means of crippling Mueller’s investigation.

“It isn’t about protecting Jeff Sessions,” Gupta said. “It’s about protecting the notion that nobody is above the law in this country and that the Constitution applies to everybody.”

It wasn’t always this way for Sessions, a federal prosecutor during the 1980s-era “war on drugs.” His conservative Senate positions, including opposing bipartisan legislation that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally, made him a natural fit for Trump.

Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump, and he joined the candidate for campaigning and foreign policy meetings. The loyalty paid off with the attorney general post, but it also wound up entangling him in the Russia investigation.

Even as Sessions has pushed the Trump agenda, he has confronted headlines about his campaign interactions with the Russian ambassador and about his attendance at a campaign meeting where the prospect of a Trump-Vladimir Putin meeting was broached.

“It’s not as if Trump’s background didn’t have a lot of red flags in it and Sessions decided, ‘Hey, I want to get on board with this person’ and it frankly turned out poorly for him as a person,” said Smith, the former Sessions aide. “I do think that’s a lesson in discretion.”

Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in Washington and Jay Reeves in Alabaster, Alabama, contributed to this report.