WASHINGTON ― Attorney General Jeff Sessions is rapidly shifting the Justice Department’s focus from Obama-era goals such as civil rights enforcement and criminal justice reform to conservative priorities.
A draft version of the department’s five-year strategic plan obtained by HuffPost shows the Trump administration’s plans for the DOJ include cracking down on undocumented immigrants, aggressively prosecuting national security leaks, zeroing in on campus speech issues, targeting the MS-13 gang and restoring the “rule of law” throughout the country.
The special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and President Donald Trump’s attacks on Sessions have grabbed headlines in the attorney general’s first year in office. But the Justice Department, of course, has jurisdiction over much more than the Russia probe.
The Justice Department is a massive bureaucracy with more than 100,000 employees spread out throughout every federal district in the nation and within component agencies like the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service. The Justice Department prosecutes defendants ranging from high-profile terrorists and drug kingpins all the way down to demonstrators who chuckle during congressional hearings. Its strategic decisions affect millions.
That makes the draft strategy — a final version is due out soon — a reminder of the full scope of the Trump administration’s impact on the direction of federal law enforcement. A Justice Department spokesman said the plan is not yet finalized but issued a statement highlighting many of the same priorities addressed in the draft plan.
“The Department’s 5-year strategic plan is not final until the Attorney General signs it. As he has not yet done so, we cannot comment on unofficial documents that we have not seen or reviewed and are not in final form,” Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said. “That said, the Attorney General has made clear that his goals are to protect our national security, reduce violent crime, combat the deadly opioid crisis, enforce our immigration laws, and restore the rule of law.”
The draft plan has four major strategic goals: counterterrorism; securing the borders and enhancing immigration enforcement; reducing violent crime; and promoting “integrity, good government and the rule of law.”
In the counterterrorism realm, the draft plan calls for the DOJ to improve its ability to use social media to identify terror threats; to steel DOJ employees against internal threats who “selectively leak classified information” to “advance their personal agendas” and to “aggressively investigate” the disclosure of classified information; and team up with the private sector to enhance the department’s ability to disrupt cyber attacks.
The draft plan also calls for immigration enforcement to be prioritized in every federal district across the country; to denaturalize those who obtained citizenship fraudulently; and to end “sanctuary” policies. The Justice Department sued the state of California over sanctuary policies this week.
Under crime prevention, the draft plan specifically names MS-13, an international gang that has gotten heavy attention from the Trump administration. The specific mention elevates them to a status not even given to the so-called Islamic State group. The draft strategic plan argues that violent crime and intentional targeted assaults on members of law enforcement are up, a disputed claim that critics say fail to place numbers in historical context. The draft document calls for a “strategic and targeted” plan to incapacitate violent criminals and says the DOJ will partner with other law enforcement agencies to dismantle drug trafficking organizations. The department will also attempt to “engage with the community,” reduce demand for opioids and focus on opioid-related health care fraud.
The DOJ’s final strategic goal involves promoting integrity, good government and the rule of law. The draft plan says the Justice Department should be a “beacon of integrity and bulwark against dishonesty.” That’ll be a tougher challenge, given that attacks on the Justice Department from President Trump and others on Capitol Hill have gutted Trump supporters’ trust in federal law enforcement. Additionally, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog has said Trump’s proposed budget doesn’t give his department enough support to do his work.
As part of the draft strategic plan, the Justice Department plans “promote a culture of respect for First Amendment rights” and to educate schools about their obligation to respect student expression. The Justice Department has already intervened in cases involving the free speech rights of conservatives and Christians.
What’s not in the plan
The draft plan’s omissions speak as loudly as its contents. Although the DOJ’s prior strategic plan emphasized civil rights enforcement and criminal justice reform, the draft version of the plan that HuffPost viewed does not.
The Obama-era plan highlighted the rights of federal prisoners and stated that incarceration “traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.” It emphasized avoiding “harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders,” supported Americans’ right to “equal protection and justice” and the need to protect “vulnerable populations.”
Criminal justice reform has been a focus of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, but hasn’t been a priority for the Justice Department. Sessions has rolled back Obama-era sentencing reforms and publicly opposed a bipartisan sentencing reform bill, earning a harsh rebuke from his former Senate colleague Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
Under Sessions, the Justice Department has retreated from police reform, which had become a top priority under the prior administration. Trump’s draft budget calls for the elimination of a historic office founded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that works to ease racial tensions. Less than one-third of Civil Rights Division employees are satisfied with the Trump administration’s policies.
Vanita Gupta, who headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under the Obama administration and is now the top executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that Sessions has advanced an anti-civil rights agenda since the day he became the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
“I supposed they don’t have the item that says ‘roll back civil rights progress’ on their strategic plan, which has been what they’ve been doing,” Gupta told HuffPost. “Frankly they should’ve added that to the list.”
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering the Justice Department, federal law enforcement, criminal justice, and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at 202-527-9261.