Much of the coverage of Jeff Sessions’ appearance on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee has focused on what the attorney general did and didn’t say about Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia. But it’s also worth noting a back-and-forth between Sessions and Dick Durbin, an exchange that exposed the big lie at the center of the Trump administration’s purported reverence for law enforcement.
Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, asked Sessions why the federal government is threatening to take funding away from the Chicago Police Department given how strongly the president and the attorney general seem to feel about gun violence in the city. The Trump administration has said it will withdraw funding if Chicago does not agree to help the federal government detain and deport undocumented immigrants.
“We cannot continue giving federal taxpayer money to cities that actively undermine the safety and efficacy of federal law enforcement and actively frustrate efforts to reduce crime in their cities,” Sessions said in August. “So if voters in Chicago are concerned about losing federal grant money, call your mayor.”
Durbin reminded Sessions that he had praised local police departments in his opening statement, saying they were “better-trained and more professional than ever.” Then Durbin read a quote from Chicago Police Department superintendent Eddie Johnson: “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Undocumented immigrants are not driving violence in Chicago.”
“Mr. Attorney General,” said Durbin, “you’re not helping us solve the murder problem in Chicago by taking away these federal funds.” He then got to the heart of the matter: “You can’t give an opening statement throwing a bouquet to local police and then ignore what the superintendent of police in Chicago tells you.”
This is an important point: For all the administration’s pro-police rhetoric, it has demonstrated a total lack of interest in the viewpoints and recommendations of actual police leaders.
Trump loves to present himself as a great friend to law enforcement. “I am [a] big, big believer and admirer of the people in law enforcement, OK? From Day 1,” the president said during a speech this summer. “We love our police.” This was a few minutes before he sneeringly encouraged the officers in the audience to slam people’s heads against their squad cars when making arrests.
Being “pro-police” is one of Trump’s favorite things to pretend to be. It’s the flip side to his obsession with violent crime, and it’s a stance he takes whenever he can: talking about how we’re mistreating police officers in the age of Black Lives Matter, making it easier for police departments to acquire military equipment, giving them their own week, and decorating the White House in blue lights.
Sessions sees eye to eye with Trump on policing, and as the nation’s top law enforcement official, he has taken multiple steps to give them more power. He has made it easier for local police departments to seize money and property from innocent people. He has vowed to subject local police departments to less aggressive federal oversight. This is a sharp reversal from the Obama years, when the cause of police reform found allies in the top ranks of the Justice Department and in the White House.
In February, a group of current and former police executives and prosecutors came together to submit a list of recommendations to the new president, with signatories including former New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton and former Dallas Police Chief David Brown. In a 13-page document, this decorated group of credentialed crime-fighters tried to convince Trump to be less hostile to the concept of criminal justice reform and to suppress his instinct that police being “tougher” necessarily makes people safer.
“Decades of experience have convinced us of a sobering reality: today’s crime policies, which too often rely only on jail and prison, are simply ineffective in preserving public safety,” the memo reads. Also: “There must be penalties for misconduct, whether that misconduct is committed by the police or the community. A mistrustful community puts police officers at risk. Without cooperation between law enforcement and the community, enhancing public safety is next to impossible.”
Judging by the policies he has supported and the speeches he has made since that memo was submitted, those words had no effect on the president. Meanwhile, the group responsible for crafting the memo, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, held a summit in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to discuss justice reform and the restoration of trust between police and minorities. Their choice of featured speakers—former Attorney General Eric Holder and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates—suggest the group may have given up on trying to reach Trump.
Durbin had it exactly right during his excoriation of Sessions on Wednesday: The Trump administration holds itself out as a champion of police officers while ignoring the advice and judgment of real-life police professionals. Not ivory tower experts, not bed-wetting liberal commentators—actual police.
On one level this is not surprising: There has always been a gulf between police brass and the rank and file, with the former tending to be more progressive and open to the concept of police reform and the latter tending to be more reactionary. It also makes sense that Trump, with his outer-borough populist image, presents himself as an ally of cops on the street rather than the elitists upstairs. This alliance should be viewed for what it is, though: proof that Trump’s emphasis on “law and order” is a phony cover for his primitive infatuation with force and power.