image: Edel Rodriguez

Dysfunction Hobbles Trump Justice Initiatives

Trump and Sessions fail to fill Justice Department positions

As we enter Trump’s second year in office, our “tough-on-crime” president and his attorney general have failed or refused, in their first year in office, to fill six key Justice Department posts with Senate-confirmed picks. Vital federal law enforcement agencies—the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and the U.S. Marshals Service—are still being led by “acting” officials. As one former Justice Department inspector general says, it’s an “unprecedented” and unwarranted abdication of an administration’s obligation to appoint new leaders in a timely manner. Translation? For all its tough talk about muscling up police powers, the Trump White House can’t even get its act together long enough to staff its “law-and-order” agenda.

The man who railed about “American carnage” during his inaugural address, meanwhile, has done virtually nothing to stem the murder rate in cities, other than to lash out at local Democratic officials and laud police unions. Surely soon he’ll blithely take credit for the declining crime and homicide rates in some jurisdictions, even as he blames policing consent decrees and “sanctuary city” policies for upticks in crime in others. Either way, his administration already has promised its benefactors in the private prison industry that their detention facilities will be brimming with men, women, and children caught up in the nation’s new immigrant dragnets.

Even as voices from all corners of the political spectrum have begged the president to fight the upsurge in opioid addiction, which is killing more Americans each year than the AIDS epidemic did during its depths, the administration has not mustered the institutional competence to find a capable “drug czar” to lead the charge against drug companies, pill-mill doctors, and traffickers. Every day in America, white rural families—Trump’s base—are losing loved ones to drugs. Every day in America, the help Trump promised still hasn’t come. What has come is a new generation of U.S. attorneys being pushed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other old-school drug warriors to seek harsher federal sentences in drug cases.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has paid attention, over the decades, to the patterns and practices of Donald Trump and his feckless tribunes. The scam is as old as it is clear. First come the dark warnings and threats. Then come the grand promises propped up by demonstrably false assertions of his own power and promise. I, alone…! And then, inevitably, comes the incompetence and inattention and self-deceit that dooms whatever the goal might have been in the first place.

The problem with Trump and Sessions is that the policy choices they are making are ones that recent history has proven to be wrong.

It is, of course, laudable to want to decrease the nation’s violent crime rate or to ease the searing pain the opioid epidemic has brought on countless people—not just laudable but a political no-brainer: Every modern president has pledged to make America safer and less addicted. The problem with Trump and Sessions, the problem for Trump and Sessions, is that the policy choices they are making are ones that recent history has proven to be wrong.

Take, for example, the issue of crime rates and the notion that American cities are places of ceaseless carnage. Both Trump and Sessions demagogically insist that we are in the midst of a national crime wave. But the latest evidence, updated this past December, confirms what we have known for the last few years; the national crime rate is down again, and is near generational lows. Some cities, like Baltimore and Charlotte, have seen their murder rates rise in the past year. Other cities, like Chicago and Detroit and Camden, New Jersey, have seen those rates decrease since last year. New York City remains at or near historic lows. The overall crime rate in the nation’s 30 largest cities fell 2.7 percent, according to data compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Thoughtful leaders look at these facts—and they are facts—and conclude that officials in many jurisdictions have figured out how to reduce violent crime, including the murder rate, through a series of their own policy choices. It’s smarter policing. It’s community buy-in. It’s the use of new technology in law enforcement. It’s good detective work that holds criminals accountable. It’s combatting recidivism and improving the social reintegration of offenders. It’s figuring out how to keep guns away from criminals. Prudent politicians would try to emulate what’s working and try to avoid what’s not working, which is the essence of the concept of evidence-based best practices. If there is one thing we already know about the Trump administration, it’s that “best practices” is not a daily (working) mantra.

How else to explain an administration that rallies its nativist base by bellowing about the need for more cops and more-aggressive law enforcement but then cannot summon the discipline to appoint its own leaders at the DEA and the ATF and the U.S. Marshals Service? Finally, there is the administration’s shifty response to the opioid crisis, embodied in the president’s decision, in October, to declare the problem a “health emergency” but not the “national emergency” that would have facilitated the provision of federal funding to help ease the crisis. Here we see the same Trumpian pattern: the recognition of grave danger; the bold and self-serving promise of quick and decisive action; and then, the disappointing and chaotic follow-through.

There is little reason to hope, as a new year dawns, that either Trump or Sessions is going to pay more attention to the evidence splayed out in front of them, or that a new age of “best practices” and professional rigor is suddenly going to descend on this White House. The good news is that state and local authorities will continue their progress on violent crime rates, and that the bureaucrats now running the DEA, the ATF, and the U.S. Marshals Service are competent enough. The bad news is that thousands more Americans will die of drug overdoses this year, in part because this administration is unwilling to pursue all available measures to end the real “American carnage” that has taken hold across the country.

Andrew Cohen is a senior editor at the Marshall Project, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and a senior legal analyst with CBS Radio News.