After healthcare setback, White House returns to symbolic gestures on hot-button issues

The idea of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions going to the White House to announce the continuation of an Obama administration policy related to immigration would have been unthinkable months ago. But that’s what happened Monday.

Sessions, decrying the safety risk posed when cities don't cooperate with federal immigration authorities, repeated previous statements that the Trump administration would seek to deny so-called sanctuary cities some federal grant funds. He offered no new policies, simply reiterating an Obama administration directive from the previous summer. But he did so with stark rhetoric intended to resonate with fellow advocates of aggressive moves to target illegal immigration.

“Countless Americans would be alive today and countless loved ones would not be grieving today if these policies of sanctuary cities were ended,” Sessions said.

His statement was the most visible sign of how the White House hopes to regain its footing after the collapse of its healthcare bill — returning to the types of largely symbolic gestures on campaign promises that were a staple of its early weeks.

In his first full week in office, President Trump used executive authority to target a slew of Obama priorities, seeking to restart construction of oil pipelines, review new overtime pay rules and formally break from the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership. Many of those orders did not actually change policies, but did highlight issues Trump’s voters care about.

On Monday, Trump was back at it — rescinding Obama-era regulations through a 1996 law that sought to give Congress an effective veto of executive directives.

The Congressional Review Act had been used just once before Trump took office; he signed four at once, addressing regulations on government contracting, development on public lands and education that the White House said hurt the economy and further centralized power in Washington.

“This was a lot of work for a lot of people to get this done, but it’s going to lead to a lot of good jobs and a lot less regulation,” Trump said at a signing ceremony attended by Republican lawmakers.

Only days earlier, a more somber president admitted that enacting more far-reaching legislation was a much heavier lift. A three-week sprint to pass the first major plank of his legislative agenda ended with GOP leaders calling off a vote on the American Health Care Act, the long-promised mechanism for repealing and replacing Obamacare.

The White House on Monday still had little appetite for dwelling on that setback, setting it aside as they re-calibrate strategy on an equally daunting task: a rewrite of the federal tax code. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer only tentatively stood by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s previously stated August target date for legislation.

Spicer also didn’t rule out renewing efforts to address Obamacare, either with the cooperation of Democrats or with new ideas from fellow Republicans.

“Obamacare had a ton of fits and starts during its process. It was left for dead multiple times, but they pressed forward,” he said. “There are people coming to the table, but he's going to listen to all good ideas across the spectrum to figure out what it takes to get to 218.”

But the highest-profile symbolic move came from Sessions. He noted that any jurisdiction applying for grants from his department would have to certify that it was in compliance with federal immigration law. He didn’t mention that the Justice Department already has been requiring that at least since July, so police and sheriff departments that currently have Justice Department grants already have been asserting that they meet the requirements of federal law.

Although many cities have policies that they, or critics, characterize as “sanctuary,” those policies do not necessarily mean they are violating the law.

Sessions did say that the Justice Department could impose additional requirements later, but announced none.

“Fundamentally, we intend to use all the lawful authority we have to make sure that our state and local officials, who are so important to law enforcement, are in sync with the federal government,” he said.

He also warned against jurisdictions adopting sanctuary status. The California Legislature is considering a proposal to institute the designation statewide; Sessions, though, singled out Maryland, which has a similar proposal.

“That would be such a mistake,” Sessions said, while noting Maryland's Republican governor opposes the change proposed by the heavily-Democratic Legislature.

California Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), author of the sanctuary state legislation, said Sessions’ announcement amounted to “blackmail,” and accused him of using “alternative facts” to describe immigrants and sanctuary counties and cities.

“Instead of making us safer, the Trump administration is spreading fear and promoting race-based scapegoating,” he said. “Their gun-to-the-head method to force resistant cities and counties to participate in Trump’s inhumane and counterproductive mass deportation is unconstitutional and will fail.”

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