Trump attacks may define Sessions’ legacy

WASHINGTON — 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 tenure, those efforts are at risk of being eclipsed by his boss’ relentless verbal jabs that have made the attorney general seem like a perpetual presidential punching bag. It’s a role Sessions never sought but perhaps could have anticipated.

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

The treatment has largely overshadowed the attorney general’s work on violent crime, illegal immigration and opioid addiction, clouding a legacy 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 who says the criticism is “eroding what otherwise would be a very respectable portfolio.”

“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 mostly absorbed the blows quietly while marching through a tough-on-crime agenda, bringing to the job the same hard-line principles that once placed him far to the right of many other Republican senators.

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. He also has alarmed his critics, who fear he has degraded civil rights protections by not defending affirmative action, police reform or transgender legal rights.

But neither Sessions’ work 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 as an act of disloyalty that led to special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment.