WASHINGTON – It was a show of political civility increasingly rare in the hypercontentious capital.
The Justice Department paused on Thursday to applaud former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who returned to plaudits four months after he was abruptly ousted by President Donald Trump, who disparaged him while he was in office and has kept at it since. As recently as Wednesday, Trump lashed out at his former attorney general for recusing himself – as the agency's rules require – from overseeing its investigation into Russian interference in the election that put Trump in office.
Sessions was there for a farewell ceremony, to receive the Cabinet chair he occupied at the White House.
Sessions thanked the large gathering assembled at the department’s cavernous Great Hall and described his 21 months as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer as the “most meaningful months in my professional life.”
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“I have been blessed in abundance,” said Sessions, who was accompanied by his wife of nearly 50 years, two daughters and six grandchildren. “Thank you from the depths of my being.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein offered the only reference to Sessions’ rocky relationship with the White House and his status as a frequent target of a president who found himself facing multiple federal investigations.
“No attorney general’s tenure goes exactly as planned,” said Rosenstein, himself a frequent target of Trump’s ire, who is planning to exit the department in the next few weeks. “An attorney general’s success is measured by accomplishments, not by length of service.”
Rosenstein then went on to laud Sessions for his efforts to combat violent crime, reduce illegal immigration and for his support for local law enforcement. Sessions, whose tenure largely featured a rollback of Obama administration policies, believed that local police had often been unduly blamed for aggressive enforcement tactics.
“The people and programs Attorney General Sessions put in place will continue to benefit” the country, said the deputy attorney general, describing Sessions as “a trustee of justice.”
The afternoon ceremony included a number of people from Sessions’ leadership team, including Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ one-time chief of staff who was later tapped by Trump to replace him until the confirmation of William Barr.
Whitaker, who departed the department shortly after Barr’s arrival, is himself under scrutiny from House Democrats, who are investigating whether Trump sought to sway either the Russia investigation or a separate inquiry into payments in the final months of his campaign to silence two women who claimed to have had sex with him.
Whitaker has denied any such effort.
The friendly afternoon gathering, while designed to honor the 84th person to hold the office of attorney general, could not entirely shake the shadow of the Russia inquiry.
As Sessions was honored inside, television satellite trucks idled outside, waiting for what seemed to be the imminent delivery of Russia special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jeff Sessions, mocked then fired by President Trump, returns to Justice for applause and a chair