Career Civil Rights Division DOJ Employees Being ‘Encouraged’ to Leave

While President Trump may have few real achievements with legislation or the economy, he has managed to turn the clock back decades in the Department of Justice and created a climate of fear in the Civil Rights Division.


Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The Jefferson Sessions Show rolled into Long Island Friday, carting familiar themes in its caravan: Terrifying Criminal Aliens! … “Crime in Baltimore and St. Louis!” “Gang murderers and thugs assaulting!” whom Sessions vowed “must not be allowed to take a single city street.” And there was Sessions’ and Trump’s favorite new bogeyman, the Salvadoran MS 13 gang, which he portrayed as marauding through the streets of New York City with a “mantra of kill, rape and control!”

Sessions doubled down on his vow that, “this administration will end illegal immigration” altogether. He portrayed undocumented immigrants as an existential threat to New York and to America – despite the fact that statistically, non-citizens, including the undocumented, commit crimes at a lower rate than the native born. He didn’t explain how the aggressive deportations that are terrorizing Hispanic communities would help root out a gang few outside the Salvadoran community (and presumably, Fox News brown scare-vision) have heard of, and which theoretically, some of the undocumented immigrants Trump and Sessions are targeting could help authorities identify if they weren’t terrified to come forward for fear of being marked for deportation.

The Trump administration has stood up its Gotham City comic book style VOICE agency, which Trump announced during his congressional speech in January, to allow people to channel mass hysteria about the undocumented through a hotline that so far has mainly fielded calls about crop circles, UFO sightings and Superman. The goal of the absurd menu of tactics seems to be to scare the hell out of Americans about immigrants, while terrifying immigrants into fleeing the country.

Sessions’ remarks on Long Island were riddled with the kinds of falsehoods that have formed the basis of his paranoid and racially retrograde immigration philosophy for decades. He claimed that despite “30 years of declining crime… now it’s coming back up and murders are up.” In fact, violent crime in New York is at record lows, including shootings and murders being at thelowest levels since the NYPD began keeping score. And despite aberrations like Chicago in 2016, violent crime has declined sharply in the U.S. since the 1990s according to the FBI, which reports to Sessions, and hasn’t had its statistics tampered with by Trumpworld minions that we know of. At least not yet.

Sessions dropped the supposedly damning statistic that 42 percent of district court cases in New York City involve non-U.S. citizens. Never mind that the federal courts happen to be where immigration cases are tried – hence the high percentage of foreign-born defendants. And he even rolled out his preferred: “it’s a stressful job and sometimes people make mistakes” substitute for policing reform.

Sessions’ tenure has in many ways been every bit as bad as civil rights activists feared. He has restarted the grinding machine of private prisons shut down under his predecessors in the Obama administration – purportedly to have places to warehouse the millions of immigrants he plans to round up. And if his posture on immigration has terrified communities of color nationwide, his presence has made life hell inside the DOJ, particularly in the division charged with protecting the civil rights of America’s most vulnerable populations.

The Civil Rights Division was created by the 1957 Civil Rights Act and has a mission that reads like Sessions’ worst nightmare: “enforcing federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status and national origin.” It’s the Division that prosecuted the killers of Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney in Mississippi, and that investigated the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But under Sessions, morale in the Civil Rights Division has cratered, according to three sources with knowledge of the inner workings. “They are totally freaking out,” said a former high-ranking DOJ official speaking on condition of anonymity to protect those still working there. “They are doing everything they can to keep things going, but everything they do has to run through a front office mired in politics.” Specifically, the politics of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, whose antiquated views on voting rights, immigration and LGBT people he now has the power to put into practice on a national scale.

The Civil Rights Division employs some 700 career civil servants: mostly lawyers cut from the ACLU or NAACP Legal Defense Fund cloth. They are “mission driven, and wicked smart,” said the former official, and they are supposed to be insulated from politics. But while some functions at Justice are self-propelled, based on enforcing existing laws, the mission of the Civil Rights Division can be greatly shaped by the political appointees, who number fewer than a dozen, but who hold immense power over their respective fiefdoms; areas like housing rights the rights of the disabled, employment litigation and voting rights.

“It’s brutal in there,” said the ex official. “This is an administration that has made no bones about being willing to undermine really longstanding civil rights enforcement.”

“Some of it is complete and total bluster,” the source continued, “like the stuff on consent decrees. Sessions can’t do anything about the existing decrees filed with federal judges. He just doesn’t understand the first thing about that program.”

And yet, people inside the Division are nervous, particularly given Sessions’ willingness to publicly repudiate work already done by the department.

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“The high profile stuff where we made the biggest impact: criminal justice, policing, voting rights, LGBT rights … those have the biggest targets on them, and the assault on that work has been the most high profile,” said the source. People inside the Division worry that the next viral video of a police shooting that triggers unrest could produce an explosion that the Justice Department is not prepared to handle.

“What are they gonna do when a city is on fire and officials are begging Justice to do an investigation?” the source asked. “On voting rights, policing, criminal justice reform, immigration rights, LGBT issues … they’ve demonstrated very quickly a very different worldview of what this country is about,” and it doesn’t exactly fit the historic mission of the division once run by the likes of Burke Marshall, or the Justice Department helmed by men like Bobby Kennedy and Nicholas Katzenbach.

A second source, a longtime Republican activist and fundraiser still active in the party, was more blunt, saying “I have been in politics for a long time. I haven never seen senior officials so afraid. They talk about careers being ruined and being spied on by Sessions and his mafia.”

Still, because there is no nominee yet to replace respected Obama-era Division leader Vanita Gupta as head of the Civil Rights Division, people working in the department are holding their breath and hanging on. “There hasn’t been a mass exodus yet,” the former official said. “People are waiting to see.”

Reportedly, one of the more outlandish ideas for a Civil Rights Division head floated by Trumpworld was former Kansas secretary of state, “papers please” law author and Crosscheck voter suppression tool creator Chris Kobach, though the former official doubted even the go-along Republicans in the Senate would be crazy enough to try and push him through. That said, the level of anxiety in the department is allegedly high. “They’re pretty disheartened,” the onetime official said. “But they are waiting to see who’s going to be nominated.”

Whoever it is, they’re not expected to build on what had become an increasingly diverse Division over the last eight years. When Eric Holder was running Justice, at least a half dozen of the ten most senior political appointees were people of color. That continued under Loretta Lynch, during whose tenure two of the top three people at Justice, including Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, were women.

Under Sessions, those numbers have dwindled. There is at least one black senior level person at Justice; Monty Wilkinson, an Obama holdover who heads the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. (Incidentally, there are, at present, no U.S. attorneys, since the Trump administration fired them all and hasn’t nominated replacements.)

The Senate recently confirmed Rod Rosenstein, a former U.S. Attorney from Maryland, as deputy attorney general, and it was announced that he would oversee the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, replacing the previous investigation supervisor Mary McCord, the respected chief of the DOJ’s national security unit who abruptly announced her departure April 20th without explanation.

“She’s a straight shooter,” said a third source, a non-lawyer who worked at Justice under Holder and Lynch, of McCord. “Knowing her, I can’t see why she would step down. It’s very odd.”

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment about McCord’s departure and the level of morale in the Civil Rights Division.

Sessions has recused himself from the investigation due to his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential campaign.

The third source said McCord’s departure comes as other career people, who can’t be turfed out because of civil service protection, are privately being “encouraged” to leave the DOJ.

“When Trump came in they reneged on Preet [Bharara] and Sally [Yates] and fired everyone” on the political appointee side, the third source said. “Now, they’re taking it a step further and asking career folks to step down too. Even though these are straight shooter career people. They are weakening the agency.”

Or rather, remaking it in the image of its new, old-fashioned leader, the former Senator from Alabama.