Sen. Chuck Grassley has blasted Attorney General Jeff Sessions for criticizing the lenient sentencing legislation Grassley and others are pushing in the Senate. The bill would would slash mandatory minimum sentences for many federal drug crimes and cause the release of many drug felons before they have served their full sentence.
Grassley says he’s incensed, and has the right to be, because of what he has done for the Attorney General. He stated:
[Sessions] had a tough nomination, a tough hearing in my committee. They wanted to call him back every other day for additional hearings about his Russian connection, and I shut them off of that until we had the normal oversight hearing in October I believe it was, see?
And the president was going to fire him, and I backed him, you know? So why wouldn’t I be irritated?”
Grassley is a good man, a good Senator, and a good Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. But he is off-base on this one.
Sessions has no obligation to remain silent about legislation he considers ruinous just because Grassley protected him from abusive behavior by other members of his committee. That’s part of his job as Chairman.
Similarly, the fact that he urged President Trump not to fire Sessions is of no moment here. Sen. Tom Cotton agrees with Sessions about leniency legislation. They were the two Senators who took the lead in opposing it two years ago.
Suppose, as seems likely, Cotton backed retaining Sessions as Attorney General. Cotton is said to have Trump’s ear, so his support may have counted as much as Grassley’s.
Would Sessions therefore be obligated to take Cotton’s line on every important piece of legislation? Of course not. But if he were, he would speak out against lenient sentencing measures — as he has done.
Grassley complains that Sessions is acting like he’s still a senator instead of a member of the executive branch with the responsibility of implementing the laws, not making them. Here again, Grassley is wide of the mark.
It’s a traditional function of cabinet members to give their views about pending legislation that relates to their portfolio. In fact, in a properly functioning Senate, members would call cabinet members to present and defend their views at hearings on such bills.
Indeed, when the Judiciary Committee held hearings on the same leniency legislation back in 2015, it did hear from a high level Justice Department official — one Sally Yates. Grassley and his pro-leniency colleagues didn’t want to hear from the Trump/Sessions Justice Department because they disagree with its position, not because they believe top members of the executive branch are just there to implement the laws.
Furthermore, President Trump just yesterday issued a statement backing Grassley’s immigration reform proposal and opposing alternatives. Was this a usurpation of the Senate’s prerogative to make the laws? Of course not.
Grassley says “I’ve got people in the White House sympathetic to [his sentencing legislation] but feel corralled by Sessions and a president that hasn’t dug into it.” It’s likely that there are people in the White House sympathetic to Grassley’s jailbreak bill, and we can correctly guess the identity of some of them, I think. But the president isn’t one of the sympathizers and not because he “hasn’t dug into it.”
In fact, I’ve heard from several good sources that the White House itself has been on the verge of issuing a statement opposing the lenient sentencing proposal. Such a statement would likely kill the legislation. I don’t see Majority Leader McConnell wasting valuable time on this bill — one he has never been eager to have a vote on — if the president is against it.
Grassley’s pointed attack on Sessions, complete with intimations of retaliation, may be an attempt to keep Trump out of the debate. As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Grassley could be a central figure on certain issues relating to the investigation of the administration. For example, Grassley says he’s “still puzzling” over whether to call Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner to a public hearing.
Finally, it’s worth nothing that, in criticizing Grassley’s leniency legislation, Sessions is making basically the same arguments Grassley made as recently as March 2015. Back then, Grassley ripped such legislation, calling it a product of “the leniency industrial complex.”
Grassley’s 180 degree turn in just six months remains puzzling, but he’s entitled to change his mind. Given his history on the question, though, Grassley can’t claim in good faith that Sessions’ position is unreasonable (as opposed to incorrect). He shouldn’t be castigating Sessions for articulating it.