Donald Trump has launched a sweeping law and order programme to crack down on “the menace of rising crime” and deliver on his promise to do more to protect the police.
As Jeff Sessions was sworn in as attorney general in the Oval Office, the president also moved aggressively to smash international drug cartels and and set up a taskforce on crime reduction and public safety.
Trump, with Sessions at his side, ran a fiery election campaign that put an emphasis on protecting police, citing slogans such as “blue lives matter” rather than the victims of excessive use of police force, a focus of Black Lives Matter protests.
And after waiting more than three weeks to get his hardline attorney general in place, Trump moved swiftly to sign three executive orders which flesh out his dark inauguration day description of the “American carnage” with cities plagued by gang violence.
The orders direct the attorney general to “review existing Federal laws to determine whether those laws are adequate to address the protection and safety of Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers”.
Grant funding programmes currently administered by the Department of Justice will also be examined, raising the prospect of a struggle over funding priorities – and the possibility of cuts for initiatives which do not directly support and protect police.
A new taskforce will report within a year with emphasis on identifying areas where the law needs to be strengthened, better strategies for fighting crime and evaluating crime statistics to see if they are adequate.
One of the orders focuses on drug cartels, human trafficking, corruption, cybercrime, fraud, intellectual property theft and money laundering. A working group will report within 120 days on the scale of organised international crime and its penetration into the US.
There will be a quarterly report on convictions policy to enhance cooperation for foreign counterparts and improve coordination between agencies.
The order calls for the attorney general to review relevant federal laws to determine ways to disrupt the activity of transnational criminal organisations, “including [how] provisions under the Immigration and Nationality Act, could be better enforced or amended to prevent foreign members of these organizations or their associates from obtaining entry into the United States and from exploiting the United States immigration system”.
Trump said on Thursday: “I’m signing three executive actions today designed to restore safety in America.”
One would “break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth”, he said. “A new era of justice begins and it begins right now.”
Trump added: “We face the menace of rising crime and the threat of deadly terror.”
Praising Sessions, who was confirmed after a bitter debate in the Senate, the president said: “He’s trained better for it than anybody else. He will be a great protector of the people.”
After being sworn in, Sessions, who has been criticised by Democrats and activists for a weak record on civil rights, said: “There are a lot of things that we need to do. We have a crime problem. I wish the rise that we’re seeing in crime in America today was some sort of aberration or blip,” but he said he judged it as a “dangerous permanent trend”.
“We need a lawful system of immigration. That’s not wrong, that’s not immoral, that’s not indecent. We need to end that lawlessness that threatens the American people.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer hailed the confirmation of Sessions, saying that under his leadership “the Department of Justice will return to its original core mission to enforce the rule of law”.
Spicer also hailed the three executive orders as important steps to fight crime, and took a shot at the Obama administration, saying: “In the past eight years we have seen a declining focus on law and order.”
Spicer highlighted one executive order in particular which ordered the DoJ “to develop a strategy for those who commit violence against law enforcement”. Spicer said: “Unfortunately this has not always been the case. Law enforcement officers have been vocal about how the lack of support from under the last administration led to disengagement with local communities.”
In fact, the overall violent crime rate in the US remains near historic lows. The country did see a troubling 10.8% increase in murders in 2015, which appears to have continued through 2016, according to preliminary data from the FBI.
But even with this increase, America’s overall murder rate was still about half what it was in the early 1990s. Decades of falling violent crime and homicide rates mean that even very large single-year upticks in crime do not erase much of the progress the US has made in becoming safer.
The sharp increase in murders in 2015, for instance, pushed the murder rate higher than it had been in the past few years, but still lower than the rate in 2009. That means the murder rate was the highest it’s been in five years. Trump claimed falsely earlier this week that the murder rate “is the highest it’s been in 47 years”.
Meanwhile, Trump maintained his pugnacious approach to the US presidency on Thursday as he waged running battles over everything from his supreme court justice pick to a fatal military raid in Yemen to his daughter’s clothing line.
In what has become a familiar yet jolting ritual, Trump fired a salvo of early-morning tweets that went after two US senators while one of his senior aides risked breaking ethics rules by urging TV viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” to spite a department store.
“This president’s attacking everyone under the sun,” observed Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate.
Trump’s first tweet, before 7am, criticised Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal, who had relayed a conversation he had on Wednesday with Trump’s nominee for the supreme court, Judge Neil Gorsuch.
Gorsuch described Trump’s criticism of the judiciary as “demoralising and disheartening”, according to Blumenthal, a senator for Connecticut.
But the celebrity businessman turned president suggested that Blumenthal had misrepresented Gorsuch, tweeting: “Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had (major lie), now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?”
Blumenthal, who served in the marine corps reserves during Vietnam, apologised in 2010 for saying he had served in Vietnam.
Former senator Kelly Ayotte, who is assisting with Gorsuch’s confirmation process and was at the meeting, issued a statement saying Gorsuch made clear he was not referring to any specific case. But the nominee said he finds any criticism of a judge’s integrity and independence to be “disheartening and demoralising”, she said.
Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican who has long been critical of Trump, said that in his own meeting with Gorsuch, the judge condemned the president’s reference to a “so-called judge” in Seattle who halted his travel ban. Sasse told MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “I asked him about the ‘so-called judges’ comment, because we don’t have so-called judges or so-called presidents or so-called senators, and this is a guy who kind of welled up on with some energy and he said any attack on any of, I think his term to me was, brothers or sisters of the robe is an attack on all judges.”
Blumenthal’s fellow Connecticut senator, Chris Murphy, came to his defence in a sharp tweet directed at Trump: “Ha! As a prosecutor, Dick used to put guys like u in jail. Now, u use your position to mock vets, he uses his to make their lives better.”
The ninth circuit court of appeals is weighing the appeal of his executive order on immigration, including a temporary travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Gorsuch continued his meetings on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Senator Susan Collins said she did not ask him about the conversation with Blumenthal, but added: “I think it’s inappropriate for any president to go after an independent judge. Now, I do think it’s fair game for the president to criticise the decision by a judge, but not criticise the judge himself.”
At first glance the incident implied that Gorsuch, a solid conservative, may exhibit independence and not simply rubber-stamp Trump’s legislation while on the supreme court. But Democrats dismissed this as a ruse.
Schumer said: “To whisper in a closed room behind closed doors to a senator that ‘I’m disheartened’ and not condemn what the president has done to the judiciary, and not do it publicly – what he did does not show independence. It shows a desire to show the appearance of independence without actually asserting it.”
As that controversy continued to reverberate in Washington, Trump opened a second line of attack, this time against John McCain, the 80-year-old senator and former prisoner of war in Vietnam who was the Republican nominee for president in 2008.
Referring to last week’s US military raid in Yemen, McCain said on Wednesday that any operation where a navy seal is killed, there are multiple casualties including women and children, and a $75m airplane is lost “cannot be labelled a success”.
Trump tweeted on Thursday that McCain “should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media. Only emboldens the enemy!”
He added that McCain has “been losing so long he doesn’t know how to win anymore, just look at the mess our country is in bogged down in conflict all over the place”.
The White House also continued its extraordinary battle with Nordstrom, a department store chain that recently dropped Ivanka’s Trump’s clothing line. Trump has tweeted criticism of the decision, which his spokesman claimed was politically motivated.
“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff … I’m going to go get some myself today,” Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News in an interview from the White House. “I’m going to give a free commercial here: go buy it today, everybody.”
Norman Eisen, who served as an ethics adviser to Barack Obama, said Conway’s comments amounted to an advertisement and violated government ethics law. “It’s a violation of the rule,” Eisen told MSNBC. “It’s a serious matter.”
Former chief of the office of government ethics Don Fox told the Washington Post that Conway’s comments appeared to violate rules barring the use of public office for anyone’s private gain.
Spicer said Conway has been “counselled” on the subject but declined to elaborate.