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Trump's Victory — One Year Later: Sessions Remakes Justice Department

President Trump's legislative agenda faces tough going in Congress, but that hasn't stopped his administration from changing the way the federal government does business. Few agencies have changed as much, one year since the Trump victory at the polls, as the Justice Department.
Image: Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) speaks as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats (L) listens during an event at the Justice Department August 4, 2017 in Washington.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's legislative agenda faces tough going in Congress, but that hasn't stopped his administration from changing the way the federal government does business.

Few agencies have changed as much, one year since Trump's victory at the polls on November 8, 2016, as the Justice Department.

The effect of the Trump election is readily apparent at America's southern border. Illegal border crossings are down about 40 percent from a year ago, the result of stepped up enforcement and tougher rhetoric.

And no one has pushed harder for stricter controls on immigration than Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

He has cracked down on sanctuary cities, communities that fail to give the federal government 48 hours' notice before illegal immigrants are released once they've served their jail sentences, so they can be deported.

"Those people should be removed from these communities," Sessions said in an interview with NBC News. "It will make them safer. I don't think you have any objection overall from the immigrant community to remove dangerous criminals from America."

Sessions has also ordered federal prosecutors to pursue felony charges against immigrants who repeatedly try to enter the U.S. illegally. And in July, the Justice Department urged speedier action from the nation's immigration judges, who decide cases brought by people accused of entering the country illegally and who face deportation orders.

A Justice Department memo said the judges "must ensure that lower productivity and adjudicatory inefficiency do not further exacerbate" the rapidly rising caseload in immigration courts.

Under Sessions, the government also has energetically defended Trump's orders restricting travel from mostly Muslim countries. Though pared back by the courts in response to vigorous opposition, they nonetheless reduced travel by immigrants and refugees.

President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions attend a panel discussion at the White House on March 29.Shawn Thew / Pool via Getty Images

Reversing an Obama administration policy, Sessions has directed prosecutors to seek the most serious possible charges in drug cases, even involving low-level offenders.

"This change in charging and sentencing is especially needed to address some of the factors driving the increase in violent crimes, including the epidemic of opioid and heroin abuse in our country," Sessions said.

But Eric Holder, who was Barack Obama's attorney general, called that a mistake.

"I think we run the risk of igniting another drug war that will fill our jails but not necessarily make our streets safer," Holder said.

In another change, Sessions restored a government program that makes surplus military equipment available to local police. It was cut back under Obama after the Justice Department concluded two years ago that military-style equipment contributed to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after police shot an unarmed black man.

On civil rights, Sessions withdrew an Obama declaration that said federal law barred the nation's schools from refusing to allow students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity.

The Justice Department also stepped back from aggressively fighting strict laws requiring photo ID's at the polls. And he signaled that the government would be less active in launching investigations of local police departments accused of racially discriminatory practices, arguing that the inquiries complicate the local crime-fighting mission.

Though Trump has publicly criticized Sessions for taking himself out of the Russia investigation, no Cabinet member has been more loyal to the president — or more determined to carry out the Trump agenda.