Though his future may be in doubt, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions forged ahead Thursday with a tough-on-crime agenda that once endeared him to President Donald Trump, opening a mission in El Salvador to step up international cooperation against the violent street gang MS-13.
Sessions arrived in San Salvador for a series of meetings with law enforcement officials about a transnational anti-gang task force aimed against MS-13. He planned to meet his Salvadoran counterpart as well as an ex-gang member, and tour a prison.
Back in Washington, lawmakers sized up the fallout over a week of public scorn heaped on Sessions by his boss, Trump, even as the White House suggested the president prefers that his attorney general stay on the job. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Thursday that there would be "holy hell'' to pay if Trump were to fire Sessions, a former Alabama senator and early Trump supporter.
As the Trump administration tries to build support for its crackdown on illegal immigration, it has increasingly tried to make the gang with Central American ties the face of the problem. Recent killings tied to its members have stoked the U.S. debate on immigration.
Trump praised Sessions when Sessions announced his mission to eradicate the gang in April. But the attorney general has since fallen out of favor with his onetime political ally.
In day after day of publicly humiliating Sessions, Trump said he rued his decision to choose Sessions for his Cabinet. Trump's intensifying criticism has fueled speculation that the attorney general may step down even if the president stops short of firing him. But Sessions is showing no outward signs that he is planning to quit, and on Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that Trump "wants him to lead the department.''
"Look, you can be disappointed in someone and still want them to continue to do their job,'' she said.
MS-13 is an international criminal enterprise with tens of thousands of members in several Central American countries and many U.S. states. The gang originated in immigrant communities in Los Angeles in the 1980s then entrenched itself in Central America when its leaders were deported.
MS-13 is known for hacking and stabbing victims with machetes, drug dealing, prostitution and other rackets. Its recruits are middle- and high-school students predominantly in immigrant communities and those who try to leave risk violent retribution, law enforcement officials have said.
Its members have been accused in a spate of bloodshed that included the massacre of four young men in a Long Island, New York, park and the killing of a suspected gang rival inside a deli. The violence has drawn attention from members of Congress and Trump, who has boasted about efforts to arrest and deport MS-13 members across the United States.
Law enforcement officials believe some of the recent violence has been directed by members of the gang imprisoned in El Salvador.
Officials in El Salvador, as well as Guatemala and Honduras, have expressed concern about increased deportations of the gangsters back to their countries. Transnational gangs such as MS-13 already are blamed for staggering violence in those so-called Northern Triangle countries.
Both Trump and Sessions have blamed Obama-era border policies for allowing the gang's ranks to flourish in the U.S., though the Obama administration took unprecedented steps to target the gang's finances. Federal prosecutors have gone after MS-13 before but say they've recently seen a resurgence.
Thursday's trip was planned before Trump's broadsides against his attorney general, and it remains to be seen whether his work in El Salvador will help mend their fractured relationship. Their shared view, rare among the American political class, that illegal immigration was the nation's most vexing problem was what united Sessions and Trump.