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‘Lock Her Up’: Jeff Sessions’s Politicization of Justice

He says nothing about dubious pardons but cheers on the imprisonment of a political opponent

July 26, 2018

When President Donald Trump granted clemency to anti-government activists Dwight and Steven Hammond earlier this month and cast the two arsonists as victims, the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, said nothing. He said nothing about the dangerous crime for which the Hammonds had been convicted by a jury of their peers in 2012. He said nothing about the need for “law and order,” or the virtue of respecting federal property, or the inherent danger of setting fire to parched land, or the need to respect federal law enforcement officials, the ones who had successfully prosecuted the Hammonds. 

If there is one thing we can say about the worst attorney general since John Mitchell (and that’s saying something) it is that he knows when to keep his mouth shut. Over and over he’s remained silent as the president has degraded and humiliated him for his recusal from the investigation into the Trump team’s Russia ties. Sessions does this, I believe, so he can continue as attorney general and implement his plans to undermine civil rights, human rights, voting rights, and the rights of immigrants. He figures his silence in the face of Trump’s insults is the price for advancing his Justice Department agenda.

All of which makes Sessions’ appalling embrace of the Hillary Clinton “lock her up” mantra Tuesday so telling. He didn’t have to laugh, smile, and repeat the words when he heard them shouted by a bunch of addled high school students participating in a conservative “leadership summit” in Washington, D.C. He could have remained silent or, even better, used the unusual teaching moment to educate them about the constitutional presumption of innocence and the entrenched American tradition that holds that presidents don’t lock up their political opponents. That would have been the courageous thing to do in that moment. It would have been the honorable thing to do. It would have been the right thing to do, especially during a speech about the First Amendment and political courage on college campuses. 

That it took the attorney general two days to walk back a bit from that moment, to say Thursday, “I perhaps should have taken a moment to advise them of the fact that…you’re presumed innocent until cases are made,” tells us a great deal about what the attorney general believes when he talks about honor and integrity and the neutral administration of law enforcement. To fight back against the “lock her up” chant Tuesday, to tell those kids they were wrong, would have meant to fight back against Trump and every Trump supporter — like Michael Flynn, to use a fragrant example — who also chanted for Clinton’s demise. But that’s not Jeff Sessions’s game. Sessions joked in that moment because he too believes that Clinton should be prosecuted and jailed. There is no reason to think otherwise. 

Sessions’s silence Tuesday, and his grin, are reminders that he isn’t even trying to represent all Americans as the nation’s chief law enforcement official. That he has, instead, chosen to turn the Justice Department into precisely what he and Trump have accused the Obama administration of doing to its Justice Department — bleeding the independence out of it and turning it into a partisan enforcement tool. Never mind the “lock her up” line that Sessions repeated. It was the laugh and the smile that accompanied it that tell us more about Sessions’s priorities. An attorney general with dubious ties to Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the campaign, a recused attorney general, thinks it’s funny that Hillary Clinton remains a target of Trump’s ire.

Speaking of courage and cowardice, it doesn’t take much courage to stand before a room full of police officers and tell them that the Trump administration “has their backs.” It doesn’t take much honor to tell a group of cops, especially sheriffs, that the Justice Department stands for the “rule of law” and the aggressive enforcement of immigration statutes. Sessions does that all the time, in speech after speech to friendly audiences, even as evidence mounts that he’s a critical part of one of the most corrupt administrations in history. So when he laughed about the imprisonment of a political opponent Tuesday, I thought immediately of the Hammonds and how Sessions handled Trump’s pardon of them.  

Here’s how the Justice Department described the Hammonds’ crimes in 2015, when a federal judge imposed the sentence that Trump cut short:

Witnesses at trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on BLM [U.S. Bureau of Land Management] property. Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out “Strike Anywhere” matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to “light up the whole country on fire.” One witness testified that he barely escaped the eight-to-ten-foot-high flames caused by the arson. The fire consumed 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations. After committing the arson, Steven Hammond called the BLM office in Burns, Oregon, and claimed the fire was started on Hammond property to burn off invasive species and had inadvertently burned onto public lands. Dwight and Steven Hammond told one of their relatives to keep his mouth shut and that nobody needed to know about the fire.

The jury also convicted Steven Hammond of using fire to destroy federal property regarding a 2006 arson known as the Krumbo Butte Fire located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Steen Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area. An August lightning storm started numerous fires and a burn ban was in effect while BLM firefighters fought those fires. Despite the ban, without permission or notification to BLM, Steven Hammond started several “back fires” in an attempt to save the ranch’s winter feed. The fires burned onto public land and were seen by BLM firefighters camped nearby. The firefighters took steps to ensure their safety and reported the arsons.

The story of the Hammonds is the story of the Justice Department under Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions. It’s a place where political allies like Joe Arpaio and Dinesh D’Souza find succor and where political enemies are threatened. It is a place where police and prosecutors are supported unless they’ve arrested, charged, and helped convict notable conservatives. Jeff Sessions’s silence in the wake of the Hammonds’ pardons is as inexcusable as was his participation in the “lock her up” chant. In the former case, his silence was cowardly. In the latter case, his utterances were cowardly. Here’s hoping the next group of cops and prosecutors who hear Sessions’s stump speech remember. 

The views expressed are the author’’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.

(Image: Mark Reinstein/