Were AG Sessions’ Comments In Las Vegas Unethical?

Ethics Scout Fred points me to a little noted episode in the increasingly fraught existence of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and asks whether the AG’s comments crossed ethical lines.

Let’s see…

During a speech about two weeks ago in Las Vegas in which he called for harsher prosecution of criminals and cooperation from local authorities as the federal government cracks down on illegal immigration, Sessions segued to the Cliven Bundy prosecution, and said, cryptically, of Nevada Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Myhre,

“I’ve got to tell you, it’s impressive when you have a tough case, a controversial case, and you’ve got the top guy leading the battle, going to court, standing up and defending the office and the principles of the law. I’m not taking sides or commenting on the case. Just want to say that leadership requires, a lot of times, our people to step up and be accountable.”

Supporters of the Bundy-led armed stand-off with federal authorities think that the Trump administration may sympathize with their anti-government stance, but Trump administration prosecutors are still seeking penalties for Bundy and his group.

Fred notes that “while Sessions is not responsible for how others take what he says, at least no more than any public speaker,  the effect of his remarks was to encourage lawbreakers,” based on the statement by Ashley Jones, a producer for radio show host Pete Santilli. Santili, a Bundy ally, is incarcerated pending trial in the case. Jones pronounced Sessions’ comments “a victory for us.”


1. Sessions is almost as inarticulate as his boss. Of course he’s “taking sides,” his prosecutor are taking the side of the government against Bundy and Friends.

2. I read the statement to simply say, ‘It’s good to see a top prosecutor standing up for the Rule of law even when it’s unpopular.’ Sure it is. How could that possibly be seen as a pro-Bundy statement?

3. The despicable tactic of framing a statement by an official to mean something it doesn’t to sway public opinion is old, transparent, dishonest, and only works on the language challenged, the dumb, or the hopelessly biased. By saying Sessions’ comments constituted support when they didn’t and couldn’t, Jones is launching a Big Lie. Remember when Hillary Clinton, after James Comey announced that she had barely escaped prosecution despite her negligently <cough!> handling her e-mail, stated in an interview that Comey had confirmed what she had been saying all along? Same thing. Don’t vote for Ashley Jones, either.

4.  Fred is right that a speaker isn’t responsible when someone falsely represents what he says, but speakers are responsible for being sufficiently clear that their words can’t be used to support unethical ends. Sessions shouldn’t have commented on the case at all unless he was able to be less abstruse. If working in the Trump administration is making him talk as imprecisely as his boss, Sessions should resign before he’s fired.

5. Sadly, I think the problem is that Jeff Sessions just isn’t very smart. His support for civil asset forfeiture points to this conclusion (see an excellent Reason post here); so do his jokes and other comments that got him tarred as a racist decades ago; so did his handling of the matter of his contact with the Russian ambassador, and his eagerness to support Donald Trump’s candidacy for President despite Trump’s obvious deficits.

In a non-politics interview with Meredith Vieira, Trump once said, “You have to be very smart…. You can never have somebody so smart that he’s smarter than you. You have to be the smart one.”

She replied, “But that sounds like you surround yourself with stupid people?”

I would have said, “That’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard in my life, and a terrible approach to leadership.”

It does explain Jeff Sessions, though.

17 thoughts on “Were AG Sessions’ Comments In Las Vegas Unethical?

  1. Well, Yeah!

    The Trump administration is so stupid and in so much trouble it’s hard to imagine what could have been done on purpose to make it worse.

    The only thing more stupid is Trump resistance.

    We are doomed.

      • Pessimism unethical? I disagree strongly.

        It’s essential in many fields of engineering. People will die if you’re not pessimistic enough to put in safeguards that seem to go beyond reason.

        What is unethical is to give up just because a cause appears hopeless. It is unethical not to prepare for the worst and attempt to ameliorate it, while doing whatever one can to make sure the worst does not happen.

        • So you’re doomed. And? Doesn’t that mean taking whatever steps you can to make thing less awful? That’s even more important in such a situation than when things are all tiggedy-boo.

          . “I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that… Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point to any of this at all. But it’s the best I can do. So I’m going to do it. And I’m going to stand here doing it until it kills me. And you’re going to die too! Some day… And how will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall.”
          Dr Who

        • Now, now. Considering the worst case scenario is a key aspect of ethical analysis too. BUt being aware that there is a worst case scenario is very different from being convinced that it will happen. I definitely don’t want engineers working on projects when they think, “We’re doomed no matter what we do!!!” Then they are likely to say, “Oh, what the hell. This is good enough; it’s not going to be good enough no matter what we do. We’re doomed. Where’s that porn?”

        • Engineers do not call that ‘pessimism.’ We call it ‘Cost-Benefit Analysis.’

          Worst case is failure of the system under construction (bridge, building, computer, software, etc…) which could be prevented in a reasonably affordable fashion that costs lives or large sums of money (which are the same thing in this little logical calculation.) We calculate (along with the statisticians, lawyers, and ‘bean counter’ accountants) the success and liabilities of the project before it begins.

          We could build a car, for example, that never needs maintenance and is very unlikely to break down. The problem is no one could buy it. Or we can make a car with an exploding gas tank (Ford Pinto) that is inexpensive to own. Certain impacts under certain conditions could cause that explosion. (What is the likely costs of the likely lives lost? Will there be enough profit to cover those costs? For Ford, the answers were ‘yes, we would rather make a LOT of money and pay for the lives lost in the unlikely event someone dies.’ Ford DID assign a likely cost for each life lost in this case)

          This seems callous, and it is: but that same conversation occurs with just about every sizable product ever produced. You cover the most likely failure scenarios as far as the budget allows, or you don’t build the widget.

  2. I didn’t read the comments as support for Bundy, either. But he shouldn’t have said he wasn’t “taking sides.” As you point out, he obviously is taking the side of the government. But he also has the responsibility to be clear about that.

    Like you said: stupid.

  3. How long has it been since we had an AG with any intention of doing the job as it’s supposed to be done? He’s supposed to be the chief law enforcement officer and lawyer of the United States. He’s 7th in line for the presidency. He should be able to speak plainly and to the point. Of course that is not a valued quality in this administration.

    He’s supposed to be smarter than the criminals and astute enough to cause them to think twice about breaking the law. Why should it matter when he supported Trump or who he offends? He’s supposed to offend people. He’s supposed to offend the right people. By that I mean people who are breaking the law. He’s plainly incompetent.

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