Attorney General Jeff Sessions is making aggressive law enforcement a top priority, directing his federal prosecutors across the country to crack down on illegal immigrants and “use every tool” they have to go after violent criminals and drug traffickers.
But the Attorney General does not have a single US attorney in place to lead his tough on crime efforts across the country. Last month, Sessions abruptly told the dozens of remaining Obama administration US attorneys to submit their resignations immediately – and none of them, or the 47 who had already left, have been replaced.
“We really need to work hard at that,” Sessions said when asked on Tuesday about the vacancies as he opened a meeting with federal law enforcement officials. The 93 unfilled US attorney positions are among the hundreds of critical Trump administration jobs that remain open.
Sessions is also without the heads of his top units, including the civil rights, criminal and national security divisions, as he tries to reshape the Justice Department.
US attorneys, who prosecute federal crimes from state offices around the nation, are critical to implementing an attorney general’s law enforcement agenda. Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations gradually eased out the previous administration’s US attorneys while officials sought new ones.
Sessions said that until he has his replacements, career acting US attorneys “respond pretty well to presidential leadership”.
But former officials from the Justice Department say that acting US attorneys do not operate with the same authority when interacting with police chiefs and other law enforcement executives.
“It’s like trying to win a baseball game without your first-string players on the field,” said Ronald Welch, a former assistant attorney general, who ran the Justice Department’s legislative affairs division during Obama’s first term.
“There are human beings occupying each of those seats,” Weich, now the dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, said of the interim officials. “But that’s not the same as having appointed and confirmed officials who represent the priorities of the administration. And the administration is clearly way behind in achieving that goal.”
Filling the vacancies has also been complicated by Sessions not having his second-highest-ranking official in place. Rod Rosenstein, nominated for deputy attorney general – the person who runs the Justice Department day to day – is still not on board, although he is expected to be confirmed by the Senate this month. Traditionally, the deputy attorney general helps to select the US attorneys.
Rosenstein has been designated, upon his confirmation, to take on the responsibility of overseeing the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and any links between Russian officials and Trump associates after Sessions was forced to recuse himself. He has previously served as a US attorney for Maryland.
Rachel Brand has been nominated for the department’s third-highest position as associate attorney general. She has also not been confirmed.
By March of Obama’s first year in office, the Senate had confirmed the deputy and associate attorneys general, along with the solicitor general. The Senate had also confirmed an assistant attorney general for the national security division.
When Obama’s first Attorney General, Eric Holder Jr., launched an ambitious plan to reform the criminal-justice system, it was the US attorneys on the ground who were in charge of carrying out his plan to stop charging low-level nonviolent drug offenders with offences that imposed severe mandatory sentences. Now, Sessions is taking steps toward reversing that policy – without his top prosecutors nominated or confirmed.
Sessions has also created a task force on crime reduction, and one of his first actions was to send a memo last month to his acting US attorneys and assistant US attorneys directing them to investigate and prosecute the most violent offenders in each district. On April 11, he travelled to Nogales, Arizona, where he directed his 5,904 federal prosecutors to make illegal immigration cases a higher priority and work to bring felony charges against those who cross the border illegally.
This week, the Attorney General flies to Texas and California to meet with law enforcement officials about his priorities. But, until he gets his US attorneys on board, Sessions will be hampered in moving forward with new policies, former Justice Department officials say.
“An acting US attorney doesn’t speak with the same authority to a police chief or to a local prosecutor as a Senate-confirmed US attorney does,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman in the Obama administration. “If you're a Democrat, you're probably happy to have these positions filled by career officials because they're less likely to pursue some of the policies that Jeff Sessions supports. But if you're a supporter of the president, you probably want them to move on those positions.”
The controversial orders Donald Trump has already issued
The controversial orders Donald Trump has already issued
1/9 Trump and the media
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer takes questions during the daily press briefing
2/9 Trump and the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Union leaders applaud US President Donald Trump for signing an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington DC. Mr Trump issued a presidential memorandum in January announcing that the US would withdraw from the trade deal
3/9 Trump and the Mexico wall
A US Border Patrol vehicle sits waiting for illegal immigrants at a fence opening near the US-Mexico border near McAllen, Texas. The number of incoming immigrants has surged ahead of the upcoming Presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, who has pledged to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. A signature campaign promise, Mr Trump outlined his intention to build a border wall on the US-Mexico border days after taking office
4/9 Trump and abortion
US President Donald Trump signs an executive order as Chief of Staff Reince Priebus looks on in the Oval Office of the White House. Mr Trump reinstated a ban on American financial aide being granted to non-governmental organizations that provide abortion counseling, provide abortion referrals, or advocate for abortion access outside of the United States
5/9 Trump and the Dakota Access pipeline
Opponents of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines hold a rally as they protest US President Donald Trump's executive orders advancing their construction, at Columbus Circle in New York. US President Donald Trump signed executive orders reviving the construction of two controversial oil pipelines, but said the projects would be subject to renegotiation
6/9 Trump and 'Obamacare'
Nancy Pelosi who is the minority leader of the House of Representatives speaks beside House Democrats at an event to protect the Affordable Care Act in Los Angeles, California. US President Donald Trump's effort to make good on his campaign promise to repeal and replace the healthcare law failed when Republicans failed to get enough votes. Mr Trump has promised to revisit the matter
7/9 Donald Trump and 'sanctuary cities'
US President Donald Trump signed an executive order in January threatening to pull funding for so-called "sanctuary cities" if they do not comply with federal immigration law
8/9 Trump and the travel ban
US President Donald Trump has attempted twice to restrict travel into the United States from several predominantly Muslim countries. The first attempt, in February, was met with swift opposition from protesters who flocked to airports around the country. That travel ban was later blocked by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The second ban was blocked by a federal judge a day before it was scheduled to be implemented in mid-March
SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP/Getty Images
9/9 Trump and climate change
US President Donald Trump sought to dismantle several of his predecessor's actions on climate change in March. His order instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to reevaluate the Clean Power Plan, which would cap power plant emissions
The US attorney process could be delayed many more months because of what is known as the “blue slip” process in Congress, which dates to the early 1900s. Traditionally, the administration consults with the senators of each state before choosing US attorneys. Sessions said the Justice Department will ask for help from Congress and “a number of [names] are going over now.” The Senate Judiciary Committee sends a blue piece of paper to each senator to voice their approval or disapproval of a US attorney nominee from their home state.
The Attorney General said Tuesday that the US attorney process “does take some months and has traditionally”. Sessions himself was asked to resign as the US attorney for Alabama in March 1993 by President Bill Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, who, like Sessions, asked all her US attorneys to resign and didn’t begin replacing them for a few months.
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