Since taking office as Donald Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions hasn’t missed a chance to remind the public that the North Star of his Department of Justice is the rule of law. Eliminating protections for Dreamers and exposing them to deportation; threatening to pull federal funding from sanctuary cities that refuse to do the administration’s bidding on immigration; asserting in court that gay workers aren’t protected by the letter of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; siding with a religious baker who declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple wishing to marry — all actions demanded by fidelity to the the rule of law.
Because the rule of law matters to Sessions, he decided to make it the centerpiece of his Friday remarks at the annual national lawyers’ gathering of the Federalist Society, the conservative legal brain trust that helped Trump handpick Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. About the president’s own disdain for the rule of law and so-called judges who rule against him, the group has largely turned a blind eye. Instead, they celebrate the parade of originalist judges he’s sent to the federal bench. For conservative legal thinkers, this covers a multitude of sins. “Attendees this year have an ebullience I haven’t seen before,” Ariane de Vogue, a longtime Supreme Court correspondent, observed on Twitter. The Federalist Society’s chairman, for his part, is already plotting how to turn the judicial map red.
Chalk it up to the electricity in the air, all this winning, that Sessions, after an introduction by Edwin Meese, his predecessor at the Justice Department during the Reagan administration, suddenly decided the rule of law was a joke. “Is Ambassador Kislyak in the room?” Sessions asked of the lawyerly audience, which greeted the question with laughter. “Before I get started here, any Russians? Anybody been to Russia? Got a cousin in Russia or something?” The audience was loving it. Meese was rolling.
Sessions must have thought of the Russia bit on the spot, as it wasn’t in his prepared remarks. There’s a reason he may have found the whole thing hilarious right there and then: He delivered the line at none other than the Mayflower Hotel, the same location where he and Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador, had an encounter during the presidential campaign that went undisclosed during his confirmation hearing. Sessions’s own shifting recollections and denials about his contacts with Russian officials in later Senate testimony are hard to keep up with. For all we know, he may have lied to Congress. Suffice it to say, the extent of those contacts played a significant role in Sessions’s recusal from all things Russia, a move that blindsided Trump and infuriated him. With a loyalist out of the way, it fell to Rod Rosenstein, Sessions’s deputy, to appoint Robert Mueller to lead the criminal and counterintelligence probes into the Kremlin’s disruption of last year’s election. Sessions came this close to resigning over Mueller’s appointment.
None of this is a laughing matter. That Sessions had the presence of mind to crack a joke about it makes a mockery of his self-professed commitment to the rule of law. The rule of law isn’t just rescinding Obama-era rules or steering the federal government toward more conservative outcomes. The rule of law, fragile as it is, is also a set of unwritten norms that stay the same no matter who’s in power — such as the nation’s top law-enforcement officer recognizing that he should not make light of an investigation in which he himself is implicated and may have committed perjury. One in which his own Justice Department has active, ongoing prosecutions of campaign officials that he once worked with. Sessions treating this as a joke undermines keepers of the constitutional order — Congress, the Executive branch, and now the courts — who are taking it very seriously.
“Recusals happen all the time throughout the Department of Justice … just because we follow the rules. That furthers confidence in justice,” Sessions declared near the end of his Federalist Society speech. Now that’s a good one. Desiree Fairooz, the activist who laughed at Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing and was prosecuted by his Justice Department over it, would be forgiven if she heard that zinger and laughed again.
Mueller, for his part, has his sights on another uproarious matter: ABC News reported Sunday that the special counsel is looking into the Justice Department’s role in the firing of James Comey. Sessions may have a hard time laughing that one off.