Those hoping for fireworks at Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Department of Justice, were treated instead to a slow Southern drawl of a day.
Known for being a particularly strident immigration hawk and an early congressional supporter of Donald Trump, Sessions has been accused variously of racism, sexism, and xenophobia for his legislative stances, and Democrats hope to claim an early scalp in the confirmation battles that will take up much of the Senate’s time over the next several days. However, on Tuesday, Sessions seemed comfortable parrying those accusations, pointing to a long record of prosecuting civil-rights violations (including of KKK members), to a distinguished twenty-year tenure in the Senate, and to plaudits from Senate colleagues, including former Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, who late in his career (and after becoming a Democrat) expressed regret for sinking Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship in 1986.
Controversies from those hearings have formed the centerpiece of Democrats’ case against Sessions. To accusations, resurrected from the 1980s, that he once called the NAACP “un-American,” Sessions denied the charge, explaining that he thought activities taken up by the organization to promote certain causes in Central America “could be perceived as un-American.” He pushed back, too, on the details of a decades-old voting-rights case (Perry County) that critics have said reveals a troubling attitude toward ballot access: The case, said Sessions, “was in response to pleas from African-American incumbent elected officials who claimed the absentee ballot process involved a situation in which ballots cast for them were stolen, altered and cast for their opponents.” He emphasized that, as attorney general, he would prosecute anyone who sought to violate the integrity of the ballot box. (Albert Turner Jr., whose parents were the defendants in Perry County, recently endorsed Sessions for attorney general, saying, “More than most I am very familiar with him. I believe he will be fair in his application of the law and the Constitution.”)
Sessions also objected to misrepresentations of more recent positions. “It is kind of frustrating to be accused of opposing the Violence Against Women Act when I have voted for it in the past,” he lamented, noting that while he opposed a revision of the law proposed by Vermont senator Patrick Leahy in 2013, a Democrat, he supported an (unsuccessful) alternative version authored by Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley that did not include expanded protections for LGBT persons, Native Americans, and immigrants. Likewise, while Sessions has been criticized for skepticism about the Voting Rights Act, he voted to reauthorize the act in 2006, and only objects to specific provisions that he contends are no longer necessary more than a half-century after the bill originally became law. In this, he is aligned with a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, which invalidated a portion of the law in its 2013 Shelby County decision.
On other matters, Sessions’s testimony was precisely what one would expect from a Republican attorney-general nominee. On questions ranging from abortion access to the use of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the Alabama senator committed to enforcing the laws passed by Congress and to exercising legal judgment independent of the president. In response to questions about Russia’s attempted intervention in the 2016 election, he acknowledged clear evidence of “penetration throughout our government by foreign entities,” and discussed the need for stiff penalties against foreign governments or actors who violate American sovereignty. He also promised to recuse himself from all matters related to the ongoing investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, acknowledging that his close relationship with the Trump campaign throughout 2016 might create the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The only excitement in the otherwise low-drama affair was periodic outbursts by anti-Sessions and anti-Trump protesters, including members of Code Pink.
Tuesday’s testimony marks the first day of confirmation hearings for Sessions, and while his confirmation is likely, New Jersey senator Cory Booker (D) plans to become the first senator to testify against a sitting Senate colleague in a Cabinet confirmation hearing on Wednesday. Booker’s move is particularly surprising given his effulgent praise for Sessions last February, when the two partnered to award the Congressional Gold Medal to participants in the 1965 civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Booker said that he felt “blessed and honored” to work with Sessions on the project. Congressman John Lewis (D., Ga.) also plans to testify against Sessions. On the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in March 7, 2015, as part of the commemoration of the same marches, Sessions and Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma together. They were photographed holding hands.
Sessions’s hearing is the first in a busy schedule. On Wednesday, Trump’s nominees to head the Departments of State, Transportation, and Education are slated for hearings, as is his prospective CIA director.