Sessions dials back Trump’s ‘American carnage’ vision in seeking cooperation from state law enforcers

19 March 2017 10:55am

28 February 2017.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions dialed back President Donald Trump's past exaggerations on crime while seeking state law enforcers' help in fighting what he described as the new upward trend of violent offenses.

Sessions told a room full of state attorneys general in his speech at a Washington, DC, event* that the increase in violent crime, including a 10.8 percent spike in the national murder rate, threatens to reverse more than two decades of progress in falling crime.

In prepared remarks, he said the rise in homicides between 2014 and 2015 was the steepest since 1968. He also noted in the prepared remarks the rates of rape and aggravated assault each rose about 4 percent from 2014 to 2015.

"Maybe we got a bit overconfident when we saw the crime decline steadily for so long," he said. "I do not believe that this pop in crime, this increase in crime, is an aberration. I'm afraid it represents a trend."

In his prepared remarks, Sessions likened the violent crime statistics to "the first gusts of wind before a summer storm."

But "gusts of wind" are mild compared to the dark vision Trump described in his inaugural address. "The crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential" — along with inner-city poverty, idled factories and a failing education system — have created "the American carnage," Trump said.

To back up his bleak view, Trump erroneously said at a Feb. 7 roundtable of county sheriffs that the murder rate is the highest in "45 to 47 years." In the second presidential debate, he stated more accurately that "we have an increase in murder within our cities, the biggest in 45 years."

Sessions' softer tone likely was an attempt to defuse passions aroused by Trump's law-and-order rhetoric in light of police shootings of black men and roundups of undocumented immigrants. For the attorney general to succeed, he needs the help of state and local law enforcement, who make up most of the country's crime-fighting muscle.

"We're not going to fight crime effectively just from Washington, DC," Sessions said. "This is a big deal for us to work together."

The attorney general's backpedaling from Trump's remarks also fits a pattern established by other senior administration officials.

On Feb. 15, Trump said he would consider a one-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, breaking with decades of US policy. A day later, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, returned America's position to favoring a two-state solution.

Trump has criticized the decision not to keep Iraq's oil after the US invasion; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said during a visit overseas that the US has no intention of seizing the oil.

Last week Trump boasted of a "military operation" to deport undocumented immigrants. Hours later, US Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly publicly ruled out using the military to enforce immigration law.

Unlike other Cabinet officers, Sessions is among Trump's earliest and most fervent supporters. His involvement in the president's election effort has raised questions about whether he should be part of any investigation into the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russian intelligence.

In a small way, Sessions' speech showed he wasn't in total lockstep with his boss. In his prepared remarks, he referred to years of law enforcement success that Trump rarely mentions.

"Many neighborhoods that were once in the grip of gangs and drugs and violence are now vibrant places where kids can play in the park and parents can enjoy a walk after sunset without fear," he said.

Drug fears

But Sessions said he believed a return to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s is possible without action. He called on local, state and federal law enforcement to coordinate their efforts to stem drug use, which he said goes hand in hand with violent offenses. The attorney general said he would work to limit the availability of prescription drugs, and he noted an even more difficult problem could be widespread access to cheap heroin of high purity.

The US Department of Justice would support local and state law enforcement, not avoiding the prosecution of "police officers who do wrong," but focusing more on helping police departments "get better," he said. Trump has criticized Obama for siding too often against police in controversial shootings.

Xavier Becerra, a former Democratic congressman who recently became California's attorney general, said the Trump administration's crackdown on undocumented immigrants is preventing people from approaching police to report crimes.

Sessions said while Becerra's view "had a certain validity to it," there were "countervailing" arguments that supported the administration's approach.

Still, "we don't need to have a big brawl between law enforcement agencies," said Sessions, continuing his diplomatic tone.

*National Association of Attorneys General 2017 Winter Meeting; Washington, DC; Feb. 28, 2017.

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