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Jeff Sessions’s day started a seemingly inevitable attack on legal marijuana. (Remember, this is the guy who thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot
.” [The Independent]) It ended with a revelation that the White House’s top lawyer, at the president’s behest, had pressured Sessions into not recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions did, in fact, recuse himself, but that hasn’t stopped his Department of Justice from reopening investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email and the Clinton Foundation—apparently because the president wants him to. And, according to a New York Times story last night
, two days after James Comey testified before the Senate, a Sessions aide asked a Capitol Hill staffer for dirt on Comey, with the attorney general wanting one negative article a day about the FBI director in the news media, apparently as pretext for his coming termination. Let’s dig in:
THE WAR ON WEED:
This week, California fully legalized marijuana, making it one of eight states to do so. (Another seventeen, by my count, allow medical pot
. [Governing.com]) The industry has blossomed since 2013,
when the Obama administration advised federal prosecutors not to waste money targeting pot growers and sellers who were abiding by state law. But in comes Jeff Session, the former Alabama senator who, like H.L. Mencken once said of the Puritans, has a “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Yesterday, Sessions’s
Department of Justice rescinded the Obama administration’s order, effectively giving federal prosecutors the green light to go after dispensaries if they choose. This, despite the fact that Sessions had promised a Colorado senator that before his confirmation that he absolutely would not do this, and despite the fact that Donald Trump, as a candidate, promised not to do this. So lawmakers—even Republican lawmakers in pro-pot states—are pissed.
THE NYT SCOOP: The Times story
- From the AP: “Pot proponents along with some members of Congress, including Sessions’ fellow Republicans, roundly condemned the change in direction Thursday and said it was an intrusion upon the rights of states whose voters had approved use of the drug. ‘If ... Congress allows the Department (of Justice) to crack down on individuals and state governments, it will be one of the biggest derelictions of duty I will have witnessed,’ said U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. ‘Congress is the voice of the people and we have a duty to do what is right by the states.’”
- From The New York Times: “‘I am obligated to the people of Colorado to take all steps necessary to protect the state of Colorado and their rights,’ said Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, a conservative member of the Republican leadership who has rarely broken with the Trump White House. Mr. Gardner said he had been assured by both President Trump and Mr. Sessions before voting for the attorney general’s confirmation that backtracking on marijuana would not be a focus of the administration. The senator seemed flabbergasted by what amounted to a federal assault on the expanding $1 billion legal pot business approved by voters in Colorado, and he threatened to try to block all Justice Department nominees until Mr. Sessions backed off.”
- Nancy Pelosi: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision bulldozes over the will of the American people and insults the democratic process under which majorities of voters in California and in states across the nation supported decriminalization at the ballot box. Yet again, Republicans expose their utter hypocrisy in paying lip service to states’ rights while trampling over laws they personally dislike.”
- The AP: “It was not clear how Thursday’s announcement might affect states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes. A congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed. Justice officials said they would follow the law, but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana-related prosecutions.”
- This new order, of course, won’t really affect us here in North Carolina, where neither medical nor recreational marijuana is legal. But it is a case of Sessions determining that not enough people are in federal prison for using and selling pot, going against the prevailing trends and opinion polls and making one last stand for the Just Say No crowd. More important, this will likely further alienate millennials and libertarians and independents from the administration; as a political move, it’s hard to see the upside. But that doesn’t matter, because Jeff Sessions is a true believer.
, by Michael Schmidt—who just recently was criticized for a somewhat obsequious interview with Trump—contains lots of juicy nuggets. Among them:
TARGETING THE CLINTONS:
- Trump personally intervened to try to prevent Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation and was raging mad when he did.
- White House aides stopped Trump from sending Comey a letter describing the Russia investigation as “fabricated and politically motivated.”
- Former chief of staff Reince Priebus’s handwritten notes, obtained by special counsel Robert Mueller, show that Trump told Priebus that he had called Comey to urge him to say publicly that Trump wasn’t under investigation.
- The president believes it’s his attorney general’s job to protect him and essentially be his fixer.
- A White House lawyer who thought firing Comey was a horrible idea misled the president, telling him that he needed to find cause to terminate the FBI director (he did not).
- An aide to Sessions went to the Hill and asked a congressional staffer to dig up dirt on Comey. Sessions reportedly asked for a story a day slamming Comey, seemingly as a pretext for his eventual termination. (The Justice Department denies this.)
- Two big takeaways: This sounds a lot like a president trying to shut down an investigation and then find post hoc reasons for doing so. Whether that’s actually illegal, given the president’s broad authority, isn’t immediately clear. Second, if Sessions did want Congress to hit Comey and thus pave the way for his termination, that seems to show Sessions would be in on the obstruction.
Meanwhile, amid criticism from the Fox News set—and the president himself—that the DOJ is investigating Trump but hasn’t put Hillary Clinton behind bars for imagined crimes, Sessions decided that his department should wade back into to Clinton investigations. The DOJ is taking another look at Hillary’s email server
to “gather new details on how Clinton and her aides handled classified materials. … A former senior DOJ official familiar with department leadership’s thinking said officials there are acutely aware of demands from President Donald Trump that they look into Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State—and that they lock up her top aide, Huma Abedin.” [Daily Beast] Meanwhile, the FBI office in Little Rock has taken it upon itself to investigate—again—the Clinton Foundation, and specifically allegations of pay-to-play while Clinton was secretary of state
. [The Hill]
WHAT IT MEANS:
- Problem 1: As The Hill points out, the statute of limitations on most federal crimes is five years, and Clinton left State just about five years ago.
- Problem 2: You don’t have to squint very hard to see this as a political move—Trump siccing his law enforcement agents on his political opponent—that has a scarily authoritarian bent to it. If Sessions is using the DOJ to pick fights with the president’s political enemies and distract from the ongoing Russia investigation, which very much appears to be the case, that’s a big, big problem for American democracy.
This all comes as members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus, led by North Carolina Congressman Mark Meadows, are calling for Sessions’s
ouster, decrying the “manufactured hysteria” over the Russia allegations
and blaming Sessions for revelations about the probe to reach the press. [Politico] That some Republicans on the Hill are willing to shield the president from this investigation at all costs isn’t really news—witness the House Intelligence Committee’s efforts
to obtain Fusion GPS’s bank records
, a blatant attempt to discredit the organization’s investigation into Trump [Politico]—nor is it news that the GOP has made of cottage industry of “investigating” the Clintons for a quarter century. But the fact that Sessions, who has angered his boss and Republican leaders by protecting him, is now willing to put his agents to work scraping together any that would reflect badly on the president’s former opponent is very troubling.
- On the other hand, given the pot crackdown and Sessions’s overall inclination to lock up as many people as possible—bonus points for people of color—would him being forced out be the worst thing?
The fallout from Michael Wolff’s gossipy Fire & Fury
- Steve Bannon, who served a primary source for the book, is watching his allies abandon him, especially the billionaire Mercers who are bankrolling Breitbart. There’s a good chance he’ll lose his job as Breitbart chairman. Political irrelevance would likely kill his plans to fund a series of populist challengers to establishment Republicans in primaries this year. [NYT]
- Meanwhile, Trump lawyers have tried to quash the publication of the book, sending a cease and desist letter to the publisher. The publisher responded by moving the book’s publication up four days—to today. Still, as The Washington Post reports: “But legal experts and historians said the decision by a sitting president to threaten ‘imminent’ legal action against a publishing house, a journalist and a former aide represented a remarkable break with recent precedent and could have a chilling effect on free-speech rights.”