Sessions and our other employees in Washington tune us out

Published 5:28 pm Wednesday, August 30, 2017

By John Railey
When U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III came to Winston-Salem the other day, he took no questions from the press. I tried.
I waited alone in a hallway in Benton Convention Center, hoping to throw him a question as he passed by right after the speech he gave on gangs that the press was allowed to hear. A spokesman for Sessions basically told me not to ask Sessions anything.
“Can I just eyeball him, get a look at him?” I asked.
OK, the spokesman said. But I never even got a look at Sessions.
Come on, man. Our top cop, embroiled in controversy, was here Aug. 17 to speak to a law-enforcement conference on gangs. Heather Heyer, the woman killed in Charlottesville not even a week before by a domestic terrorist who drove into a crowd of counter-protesters at a Klan/Nazi rally, had just been buried the day before.
But Sessions, the man who should be in charge of getting to the bottom of that as a hate crime, couldn’t deign to talk to the press about it. Nor could he be bothered to answer any questions about his meetings with a Russian official during the 2016 presidential campaign, or his relationship with President Trump, who appointed him, then has bullied him on Twitter for rightly recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Nor could Sessions be bothered to answer questions about the aggressive stance on subpoenaing reporters on White House leaks that he suggested earlier this month. Or about the loaded words he said at the end of his speech here bashing sanctuary cities, an idea with which our city council flirted, an idea many city residents are for and many are against.
Unfortunately, Sessions is not alone in ducking responsibility to the taxpayers for whom he works. Trump doesn’t take seriously questions from the media, and rarely gives press conferences of any length. We newspaper folks can often get comments from our congressional delegation from North Carolina, but Sens. Thom Tillis, Richard Burr and Rep. Virginia Foxx have been resistant, like so many Congress members nationwide, to holding town hall forums where the public can ask them questions in person, not by phone or online, as they’ve done. We’re all taxpayers, paying the salaries of these people who work for us. They should be accessible to us all.
Instead, we’re supposed to blindly accept the meager accommodations we’re given.
We media folks were allowed to hear Sessions’ speech at Benton, but then he promptly split to hold a private forum with law-enforcement officers. We pay the salary of Sessions and those officers. We should have been let in the forum.
I’m not faulting the law-enforcement officers. I’m betting Sessions’ folks set the rules on who would be allowed in. Gangs are a problem. Fighting them requires federal money, our tax dollars. That federal money is needed for many other efforts as well. Officials from Washington state to Winston need that money, often controlled by the White House, so that obviously figures in the fact that they and more members of Congress aren’t standing up to Trump. They’re probably scared of losing federal money.
There are other reasons they aren’t talking. Sessions is probably just cowardly following the lead of his boss. Republican members of Congress may just be weary of trying to distance themselves from Trump, and to explain their efforts to dismantle Obamacare. They should talk.
They’d certainly take some heat. But they could deliver some good news as well. Burr has done well as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in working with his Democratic vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, to chip away at the issue of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. Tillis and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware have filed a bill that would make it harder for presidents to fire special counsel on investigations.
But, increasingly, elected and appointed officials aren’t talking to the public for which they work. It’s an old story, but one that has never been worse than now.
When public officials won’t meet the public and answer questions, that breeds more questions and more tension. Americans are already on edge. They need to hear more from their leaders, through the media and, most important, in public forums.
I watched Sessions’ entourage leave Benton from my office window. I reckoned something else, something as bedrock American as the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, might be leaving as well if we don’t all stand up and demand better, starting at the ballot box.

JOHN RAILEY, who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor for the Winston-Salem Journal, which first published this column.