THE SENATE Judiciary Committee spent eight hours on Tuesday interrogating — by turns aggressively and genially — Republican Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions on the first day of his confirmation hearings to be the next U.S. Attorney General. The hearing, meant to reveal what makes Jeff Sessions tick, often revealed more about how he ticks than anything else.
“Sessions emphasizes primacy of the law over his political views,” read the headline in Tuesday afternoon’s Washington Post, a head that might as well have said “Water is wet.” It’s a given that, when the chips are down and a new job is at stake, Cabinet hopefuls will concentrate on making nice, creating as little controversy as possible. Sessions’ day-one hearing was no exception.
For the most part, the senator was the soul of circumspection, saying the right things, sounding the right anodyne notes of probity and fair treatment under the law when responding to questions about his views on Muslim immigration, waterboarding and LGBT Americans. He defended his record on voting rights and race, and offered insights on how he’d handle voter suppression, legal debates over voter ID laws ... and President Trump himself.
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Sessions said he’d push back on being a “mere rubber stamp” for Trump, and he quickly came up with an example.
He fielded questions on his support or opposition to a ban on Muslim immigration, something Trump campaigned on for months. “I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States,” he said.
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SESSIONS WAS also forced to confront his relationship with John Tanton, the white supremacist founder of the Foundation for American Immigration Reform, and Frank Gaffney, founder of the conservative Center for Security Policy and a vocal source of anti-Muslim rhetoric. Sessions has reportedly accepted awards from both men.
Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked him: “How can Americans have confidence that you’re going to enforce anti-discrimination laws if you’ve accepted awards from these kinds of groups and associated with these kinds of individuals and won’t return the awards?”
“I didn’t know if he had anything to do with the award,” he said of the Tanton award, adding that neither honor would stop from enforcing anti-bias laws.
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But he was no pushover, The Post reported. “He said, for example, that he supports the continued operation of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for terrorism suspects. He said he would not object if President-elect Donald Trump abandoned an executive action by President Obama that allows people who came to the United States illegally as children to receive work permits and a reprieve from possible deportation, although he offered no solution for what to do with those who had received such reprieves.
“He refused to agree to keep intact consent decrees prompting reform in police departments across the country, saying such agreements and the lawsuits that lead to them “undermine the respect for police officers” and should be approached with “caution.” Justice Department officials have been pressing to negotiate such reforms in Baltimore and Chicago before the end of the Obama administration.”
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OTHER TIMES we were invited to ask the real Jeff Sessions to please stand up, please stand up.
“I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology,” he said Tuesday in response to a question by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. This at odds with the 80’s-model Jeff Sessions, who said he thought the KKK "were OK until I found out they smoked pot.”
On Tuesday, Sessions acknowledged that “Roe vs. Wade is fully ensconced as the law of the land,” an acceptance 180 degrees athwart his voting record on the 1973 Supreme Court decision.
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Sleight-of-hand like that may be more of a focus as the Sessions hearings continue Wednesday, a day that's likely to be overshadowed by a news conference with Session’s next boss, the president-presumptive.
Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken won’t be letting Sessions off the hook.
“I was very troubled by the answers to my line of questioning, particularly on his very much exaggerating, misrepresenting his history in terms of civil rights cases," Franken said after the hearing in an interview on MSNBC.
"I'm going to digest all of this," he added. "But the attorney general is the person who is — his job is to make sure that there's not fraud in elections, but also there's not voter suppression…we can't have the chief law enforcement official of our nation who doesn't recognize that there is such a thing as voter suppression.”
Image credits: Sessions: MSNBC. Gitmo (2009): Reuters/Brenna Linsley.