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Low morale reported at justice agency

Under Sessions, conflict between career lawyers and hard-line agenda festers by Katie Benner The New York Times | October 20, 2018 at 3:03 a.m. | Updated October 20, 2018 at 3:03 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- During his 20 months in office, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has swept in a dramatic political shift at the Justice Department, from President Barack Obama's civil rights-centered agenda to one that favors Sessions' hard-line conservative views on immigration, civil rights and social issues.

Now, discontent and infighting have taken hold at the Justice Department, in part because Sessions was so determined to carry out that transformation that he ignored dissent, at times putting President Donald Trump's administration on track to lose in court and prompting high-level departures, according to interviews over several months with two dozen current and former career department lawyers who worked under Sessions. Most asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

Trump has exacerbated the dynamic, they said, by repeatedly attacking Sessions and the Justice Department in baldly political and personal terms. And he has castigated rank-and-file employees, which career lawyers said further chilled dissent and debate within the department.

The people interviewed -- many yearslong department veterans, and a third of whom worked under both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama -- said their concerns extended beyond any political differences they might have had with Sessions, who is widely expected to leave his post after November's midterm elections.

"Since I've been a lawyer, going back to the late 1970s, I can't recall a time when morale has been as low as I have heard from some former colleagues," said Robert Litt, a former Justice Department official who served during President Bill Clinton's administration.

A department spokesman, Sarah Isgur Flores, said Sessions and other senior law enforcement officials were committed to department's mission of upholding the rule of law, and that they had heard no complaints about that.

"We know of no department employee who is opposed to policies that uphold the rule of law and protect the American people -- which are precisely the policies that this department has implemented and embraced," Flores said in a statement.

The shift in the department's priorities under Sessions reflected Trump's campaign promises to be tough on crime and crack down on illegal immigration.

But Trump appointees ignored the legal advice of career lawyers in implementing their agenda, four current Justice Department employees said.

In one instance, Sessions directly questioned a career lawyer, Stephen Buckingham, who was asked to find ways to file a lawsuit to crack down on sanctuary laws protecting unauthorized migrants. Buckingham, who had worked at the Justice Department for about a decade, wrote in a brief that he could find no legal grounds for such a case.

Reminding Buckingham of the attorney general's bona fides as an immigration hard-liner, Sessions asked him to come to a different conclusion, according to three people who worked alongside Buckingham in the federal programs division and were briefed on the exchange.

Buckingham resigned a few months later, and Sessions got his lawsuit. A federal judge dismissed most of the case, and the department has appealed.

In stripping protections last year for transgender people under the Civil Rights Act, Sessions consulted no departmental experts, leaving out Diana Flynn, the head of the civil rights appellate division who led the effort to add the protections in 2014, and many of her career staff.

Similarly, a flare-up over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act occurred this summer after the department's political leaders urged a judge to find unconstitutional two of the law's key elements, a reversal of the government's long-standing position.

"This is a rare case where the proper course is to forgo defense" of existing law, Sessions said at the time, adding that Trump had approved the step. Three career lawyers withdrew from the case, including Joel McElvain, a 27-year department veteran, who made headlines by resigning in protest.

Trump, for his part, has stoked unease at the Justice Department. He assailed the prosecutors who won a conviction of his former campaign chairman, and he attacked the plea agreement struck with his longtime personal lawyer. He castigated Sessions for not investigating perceived White House enemies -- drawing a rare rebuke from the attorney general -- and for pursuing cases against Republican lawmakers.

As a target of Trump's high-profile rebukes, Sessions has gained cautious support even from some rank-and-file lawyers who don't agree with his priorities.

Some of the lawyers interviewed also said that departures of respected leaders and longtime career lawyers has weakened morale.

"Any given person wants to spend more time with his family," said Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and critic of Trump's attacks on law enforcement who has heard complaints from department lawyers. "But the sudden decision by large numbers of people to spend more time with their families is a creation of the atmosphere."

A Section on 10/20/2018

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