Washington these days has the paranoid atmosphere of a John Le Carré novel, with whispers of shady Russian connections lingering in the air like stale cigarette smoke and old tweets. Existential dread is the dominant mood—not only the dread of nuclear annihilation, but also of continuing to exist under a regime so topsy-turvy it makes imagining what will happen tomorrow impossible. Everyone is overwhelmed, simultaneously addicted to the constant upswell of scandal and false hope of normalcy. We’ve all become spies.
I’ll admit I don’t know what to make of this Russia stuff. Obviously the Trump people keep lying about it and should be investigated. But I’m not going to go full Louise Mensch either.
Mensch, who was a conservative in the British Parliament, is among the most prominent Wolverines who think Putin murdered Andrew Breitbart and a group of North Carolina hackers are behind Anthony Weiner’s sexts. Mensch has made some solid points—reporting on a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act wiretap at Trump Tower before the election—but seems misguided in her belief that, any day now, “Trump is going down for obstruction of justice and it’s beautiful.”
I mean, it would be beautiful. A few weeks ago, I momentarily succumbed to the dream-like logic of thinking that, when Jeff Sessions announced a press conference to discuss the revelation that he had lied about two meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, something had to give. And, for the briefest moment, everything I know gave way to the absurdity that press conferences matter and Sessions might actually tell the truth. So I decided to race across town to hear what he had to say.
I dashed up out of the Metro station and started running the few blocks toward the Department of Justice building, with the live-stream of the conference primed on my phone. Before I could get there, Sessions started talking. I stood outside, right across from Trump International Hotel, and watched Sessions on my phone. And somehow that moment—watching on my device as a man likely lied about lying across from the president’s hotel—seemed to embody all the contradictions of our world.
“I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign. And the idea that I was part of a ‘continuing exchange of information’ during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government is totally false,” Sessions said.
Sessions’s Alabama accent, which sounds so familiar to me from growing up in the South, lingered in my mind. His red neck is at least as concerning as his connections with the red menace. Sessions has made a career of stoking fear, and his policies amount to a war on black and brown people. “Inner-city crime,” “terrorism,” “drugs,” and “immigration” are all code words that allow him to attack African Americans, Muslims, and Latinx people.
His justice department will likely ignore the epidemic of African Americans killed by police, and he is against consent decrees, legal agreements between the DOJ and local police departments with patterns and practices of abuse or constitutional violations, intended to curb the unchecked power of local cops.
“I think there is concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong,” Sessions said in early January. “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness.”
In Baltimore—where the last consent decree under Obama’s DOJ was negotiated—seven officers were indicted on federal racketeering charges on the day after Sessions’s press conference. As if to disprove Sessions’s claim that “you just have individuals” doing wrong, a few days later, the Baltimore police commissioner dissolved the entire plainclothes intelligence division of the department.
“During the course of our investigation, we received a large number of anecdotes specifically identifying plainclothes officers … as particularly aggressive and unrestrained,” the DOJ report on policing in the city read, fueling the commissioner’s decision to eliminate this division.
The DOJ’s civil rights division has also typically investigated voter suppression. But given the Trump regime’s false claims of voter fraud, the division is more likely to turn its resources toward trying to keep people from voting. Sessions has already dropped an objection to voting-rights restrictions in Texas. When civil rights leaders met with him on March 7 and laid out their position on voting rights and police reform, according to Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Sessions “listened respectfully and said that I was ‘articulate.’”
I needed a drink. At an Irish pub near the Capitol, I ended up on a stool beside Thomas Perez, the former secretary of labor and the newly elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Perez had also served twice as assistant attorney general. So I figured I’d ask him about Sessions.
“I think he should resign,” Perez said, a beer in hand. “I think he’s unfit to serve. I worked for the justice department three different tours of duty, and, as Jeff Sessions said in 1999 in the Bill Clinton impeachment hearing, ‘No one is above the law.’”
He walked away. I took a swig of beer.
“Isn’t it pretty to think so,” I muttered to myself.