By Dana Milbank
Did you hear the one about Jeff Sessions?
I’d like to tell you, but I can’t. You see, it’s illegal to laugh at the attorney general, the man who on Tuesday morning announced that the 800,000 “dreamers” — immigrants brought here illegally as children — could soon be deported. If you were to find my Sessions jest funny, I would be an accessory to mirth.
This is no joke, because liberal activist Desiree Fairooz is now being put on trial a second time by the Justice Department — Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department — because she laughed at Sessions during his confirmation hearing. Specifically, she laughed at a line about Sessions “treating all Americans equally under the law” (which is, objectively, kind of funny).
Police asked her to leave the hearing because of her laugh. She protested and was charged. In May, a jury of her peers found her guilty of disorderly conduct and another offense (“first-degree chuckling with intent to titter” was Stephen Colbert’s sentence at the time). The judge threw out the verdict, objecting to prosecutors’ closing argument claiming that laughter alone was enough to convict her.
But at a hearing Friday, the Justice Department said it would continue to prosecute her. A new trial is scheduled for November. Maybe Sessions, repeatedly and publicly criticized by Trump, thinks Justice’s anti-laughing crackdown will protect whatever dignity he has left.
If Justice Department prosecutors are determined to go after those who laugh at Sessions, they are going to need an awfully big dragnet. Sessions’ mannerisms, the things he says and the way he says them dare you to laugh. It’s practically entrapment!
Sessions is a wiry man whose eyebrows soar and eyes bug out when he speaks. He often pecks his head forward, like a pigeon. His Alabama twang causes snobbish elites from outside the Deep South to snigger (thereby risking 30 days in prison). And some of what he says is so absurd the comedy must be deliberate.
At Tuesday’s announcement about the DACA program, Sessions explained that the protections would be rescinded after a delay (of six months) “to create a time period for Congress to act” on the Dreamers. Congress acting on immigration in six months? Hilarious! You could give Congress six months to affirm that there are 13 stripes in the American flag, and Ted Cruz and the Freedom Caucus would insist on an amendment reducing the stripes to 11 to reduce the size of government. Nothing would pass.
Likewise, how do Trump and Sessions suppose they are going to deport 800,000 Dreamers, many of whom have no memory of the lands they were brought from as children? Cull them in a big game of DACA, DACA, goose? Sorry, that wasn’t funny. Please don’t laugh, for your own protection.
I went to the Justice Department on Tuesday to watch the Sessions announcement, and it took strength not to commit misdemeanor mirth. Sessions had no fewer than five bodyguards — earpieces, lapel pins and menacing looks — to protect him from the credentialed press corps, more than the president uses in similar settings. He put his reading glasses on the tip of his nose, pecked his way through his written statement, mispronouncing various words, and turned to go.
NBC’s Kristen Welker and Politico’s Josh Gerstein shouted questions. Sessions didn’t answer, instead giving an awkward wave to the cameras and hastily deporting himself from the room.
It was darkly funny that Sessions thought he could banish 800,000 people, Americans in all ways but on paper, and then refuse to answer questions — just as it’s funny that he thinks people who laugh at him should be prosecuted.
If the attorney general is going to continue doing laughable things and the Justice Department is going to keep making laughing at him a crime, we are going to need some new guidelines about which laughter is illegal (Fairooz claims her offense was “involuntary,” “reflexive” and at most a “chortle of disdain,” while others have described it as “two snorts” and a “giggle”) and a schedule of penalties.
A misdemeanor chuckle at the attorney general’s expense, for example, could be punished with up to 30 days in prison for first-time offenders. An aggravated guffaw would get you a year, and if you were to confront Sessions with a premeditated ROFLMAO, you’d be looking at 10 years, some of that in solitary listening to Sessions’s old Senate speeches.
Of course, Sessions, as the victim of the crime, must recuse himself, and a special prosecutor for laughter must be appointed. I suggest James Comey, just for giggles.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.