Back in February 2016, Jeff Sessions took a major risk by becoming the first United States senator to endorse Donald Trump's presidential campaign. It made a great deal of sense — Sessions had devoted much of his political career to, essentially, the agenda Trump was campaigning on. He was the Senate's leading critic of both legal and illegal immigration, he'd blasted trade deals he thought were unfair, and he wanted to empower law enforcement to be "tougher" on crime.
And when Trump won, it appeared the risk had paid off. Sessions was rewarded with the attorney general appointment, and once confirmed, he set about implementing the policy agenda that he by all accounts deeply believes the country needs. As Dara Lind writes, he's instructed US attorneys to more aggressively charge drug and immigration offenses, expanded police powers to take property from people who haven't yet been convicted of crimes, and killed Justice Department initiatives to oversee local police departments accused of racial discrimination.
As sweeping as Sessions's changes have been, though, it's important to keep in mind that they've been policy changes.
At one point, it seemed worryingly possible that a Trump administration Justice Department could be very different — that it could be essentially remade to serve the personal whims and persecute the political opponents of Donald Trump.
Past presidents have long used Justice Department appointments to steer policy in the general direction they prefer, by prioritizing resources for certain issues, using general prosecutorial guidelines, and so on.
But the idea of a president specifically telling the Justice Department which particular people and matters they should investigate — especially if political rivals are involved — seemed beyond the pale of American politics.
Yet on the campaign trail, Trump used a great deal of illiberal rhetoric that raised alarm bells about potential authoritarianism. He repeatedly, for instance, called for his main rival Hillary Clinton to be locked up and promised that he'd ask the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to look into her activities. And though Trump changed his tune on this after the election, his appointment of a close campaign ally as attorney general raised questions about how independent the Justice Department would be.
But Sessions put minds at ease by choosing Rod Rosenstein, a longtime US attorney with a good reputation in Washington's legal community, as his deputy. And his Justice Department so far seems to have ignored Trump's tweeted rants about whom and what they should be investigating.
Most crucially of all, once in office, Sessions did in fact choose to recuse himself from oversight of the Russia investigation and all investigations related to the campaign back in March (though only after news stories about undisclosed contacts he had with the Russian ambassador gave him a bit of a push).