SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions dramatically escalated the Trump administration’s war with California on Wednesday, suing over its so-called sanctuary state law and clashing with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in a fiery exchange of words.
Sessions was defiant as he spoke to local law enforcement officials about the lawsuit, citing a series of California laws that he says are unconstitutional and violate common sense.
“I can’t sit by idly while the lawful authority of federal officers are being blocked by legislative acts and politicians,” he said, straying from his prepared remarks.
Brown didn’t hold back in his response, calling Sessions a liar and saying it was unprecedented for the attorney general to “act more like Fox News than a law enforcement officer.” He accused Sessions of “going to war” with California to appease President Donald Trump.
“What Jeff Sessions said is simply not true and I call upon him to apologize to the people of California for bringing the mendacity of Washington to California,” the governor told reporters.
The lawsuit is the latest salvo in an escalating feud between the Trump administration and California, which has resisted the president on issues from marijuana policy to climate change and defiantly refuses to help federal agents detain and deport immigrants. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said it will increase its presence in California, and Sessions wants to cut off funding to jurisdictions that won’t cooperate.
The governor and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has sued the Trump administration numerous times, held a news conference just blocks from where Sessions spoke at a hotel, but they never interacted.
Sessions also used his speech to sharply criticize Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf for warning the public about an unannounced raid by federal deportation officers recently in California. Sessions said it allowed hundreds of “wanted criminals” to avoid arrest.
“How dare you?” Sessions said of Schaaf at a California Peace Officers Association meeting in Sacramento. “How dare you needlessly endanger the lives of law enforcement just to promote your radical open borders agenda?”
Schaaf later echoed the refrain to slam Sessions for tearing apart families and distorting the reality of declining violent crime in a “sanctuary city” like Oakland.
“How dare you vilify members of our community by trying to frighten the American public into believing that all undocumented residents are dangerous criminals?” she told reporters.
Sessions received a polite if not warm reception from law enforcement officials, even when he told them his goal was to make their jobs safer. They applauded politely as he was introduced and after his speech, and more than a dozen gave a standing ovation at the end in a room of about 200 officials.
But many sat expressionless, some listening with arms crossed or chins on their folded hands, and his 25-minute speech was never interrupted by applause or protest.
Outside, dozens of demonstrators chanted “stand up, fight back” and “no justice, no peace” and some blocked traffic on a major thoroughfare. There was a heavy police presence but no arrests.
“This is a reminder that California does not see his federal policies,” said Steven Lynn, 33, a Sacramento graduate student. “We are a state of immigrants.”
Brown speculated that Sessions’ dig on California may be an attempt to ease an openly rocky relationship with the president, saying, “Maybe he’s trying to keep his job because the president is not too happy with him.”
Trump is set to visit California next week for the first time since his election to see models of his proposed wall along the Mexican border.
California passed sanctuary laws in response to Trump’s promises to sharply ramp up the deportation of people in the U.S. illegally. Sessions said several of them prevent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from making deportation arrests.
State officials say the policies increase public safety by promoting trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement, while allowing police resources to be used to fight other crimes.
One law prohibits employers from letting immigration agents enter work sites or view employee files without a subpoena or warrant, an effort to prevent workplace raids. Another stops local governments from contracting with for-profit companies and ICE to hold immigrants. Justice Department officials said that violates the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which renders state laws invalid if they conflict with federal ones.
The U.S. Supreme Court reinforced the federal government’s primacy in enforcing immigration law when it blocked much of Arizona’s tough 2010 immigration law on similar grounds. The high court found several key provisions undermined federal immigration law, though it upheld a provision requiring officers, while enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally.
Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, Paul Elias in San Francisco, John Antczak in Los Angeles and Sadie Gurman in Washington contributed to this report.
This story corrects the spelling of Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s first name.