During my 25 years as a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice, I wore my work as a badge of pride.
I felt privileged to be entrusted with some of the most significant criminal investigations and prosecutions that came out of DOJ during my tenure with the federal government.
I also felt honored that DOJ recognized and appreciated my commitment to public service. On two separate occasions, I was flown to Washington and handed an award by the attorney general for my work in the prosecution of international drug organizations, violent criminals and organized crime. There are three cases on the DOJ special operations division website that represent shining examples of the department’s best efforts at stemming complex criminal activities in the United States. To this day, a case of mine is first on that list.
The other assistant U.S. attorneys and federal law enforcement agents I worked with were not only my colleagues, but many became my friends. My daily motivation was simple: The work I did took bad people off the streets and made the lives of good people safer and more secure.
To be sure, as my 25 years at DOJ unfolded, I had greater admiration for some attorneys general more than others. I was disappointed when John Ashcroft ordered that two partially nude Art Deco metal statues, installed in the 1930s at DOJ’s headquarters, be hidden with $8,000 worth of blue drapes. And when Alberto Gonzales’ Justice Department was found to have played sleazy partisan politics in the hiring of nonpartisan DOJ positions, I was embarrassed and offended. I think Eric Holder made some bad decisions that hampered effective prosecutions, though I supported many of his decisions. Though my faith was at times tested, I never lost respect for the larger mission and the institution of the Department of Justice.
I guess I tried to put out of my mind that Jeff Sessions, the Trump-appointed attorney general, lost his nomination for a federal judgeship in the 1980s because of racist remarks he’d made while working at the Alabama U.S. attorney’s office. And it’s only recently that I learned of Sessions’ claim that the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP are “un-American,” and that he voted as a senator against hate crime bills, the Violence Against Women Act, and Loretta Lynch as attorney general because President Barack Obama’s nominees had “ACLU DNA.”
Against the backdrop of Sessions’ historical shame, I’ve tried to come to terms with the fact that he had contacts with members of the Russian government and then lied about those contacts to Congress during his confirmation hearing.
I’ve tried to put the best spin on that fact that Sessions left President Donald Trump in a room alone with FBI Director James Comey, likely knowing that Trump was going to try and extract an oath of loyalty from Comey and a promise to drop the investigation of national security adviser Michael Flynn. I tamped down my feelings of anger and injustice when Sessions directed DOJ attorneys to file a series of briefs and internal memos ensuring that raw discrimination is protected and encouraged when it is frosted with a claim of religious freedom.
And when Sessions supported the nomination of anti-civil-rights attorney Eric Dreiband to be in charge of DOJ’s civil rights division and Brian Benczkowski, a former attorney for a Russian bank, to run the criminal division at DOJ, I bit my tongue — hard. When Sessions directed federal law enforcement officers to rip children from their parents, who were seeking legal asylum in this country, I did what I needed to do to hold back the tears.
Each of these daggers to the heart of DOJ made me question if the DOJ I knew and dedicated my professional career to still existed in some semblance of what I knew it to be. Then, a story hit the internet recently that the attorney general of the United States, while at a rally of right-wing high school students, chimed in with chants from students who were screaming “Lock her up.” And, according to reports, while repeating the mob-inspired anti-Clinton creed, Sessions laughed.
I didn’t believe it so I searched for the video and found it. There was the head of law enforcement in the United States laughing and joining the crazed chants of an angry gang of teenagers calling for Trump’s defeated political opponent to be locked up.
When I saw the attorney general in that video, I felt sick to my stomach. Not a figurative sick that comes with reading or seeing something that disgusts me. I felt literally sick, like a dissolving pain that comes from accidentally taking a double dose of my daily fistful of vitamins. Everything the Department of Justice is supposed to stand for — blind justice, equality, fairness — it all evaporated in that moment for me.
I know there are still a lot of federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents who do their jobs, day in and day out, with the impartiality they promised when they made a commitment to the Department of Justice. But it must be demoralizing to watch your boss dismantle all that DOJ stands for and inch the department closer and closer to the autocratic banana republic system of justice Trump admires and covets.
Working for the Justice Department brings with it tremendous power over people’s lives. The power to marshal the resources of the U.S. government in an investigation that is designed to strip a person of her freedom is daunting. That power comes with the responsibility to administer it fairly and impartially.
Federal investigators and prosecutors must always resist cues from the top to focus the agency’s investigative lens on anything other than doing the right thing.
Michael J. Stern was an assistant U.S. attorney for 25 years, working in Detroit and Los Angeles.
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