WASHINGTON — The Senate voted to confirm Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as Attorney General on Wednesday evening, putting one of President Trump’s closest allies in the position of the government’s chief law enforcement officer after an acrimonious fight over Sessions’ civil rights record and views on minorities.
Sessions was confirmed by 52-47 on a mostly party-line vote, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) the only Democrat to join all Republicans to back him. Sessions abstained from the vote.
As attorney general, Sessions will have sweeping powers over what laws to emphasize and cases to target — and what to ignore. That could mean huge shifts on civil rights as the Justice Department drops investigations of local police departments, stops opposing state and local voter identification laws that have been viewed as discriminatory and unconstitutional by the Obama Justice Department, and big changes on federal marijuana policy as Sessions moves to enforce federal anti-pot laws that the Obama administration largely overlooked as it allowed states to legalize weed.
He’ll also play a crucial role in defending the Trump administration’s most controversial policies in court — including the refugee ban that he and his former staff helped craft.
The debate over Sessions’ nomination has been unusually tense, especially for a sitting senator, as they tend to get treated with kid gloves by their colleagues. But Sessions’ strident opposition to both legal and undocumented immigration — and his controversial record both as senator and as U.S. attorney in Alabama — led to strident opposition from most Democrats and complaints from Republicans about how he’s been treated.
Sessions once unsuccessfully prosecuted civil rights activists who were registering elderly black Alabamans to vote, and that along with alleged comments that the NAACP and ACLU were “un-American” and “communist-inspired” and “forced civil rights down the throats of people” helped derail his nomination to the federal bench in the mid-1980s.
He has stirred controversy in the decades since, emerging as the Senate’s foremost critic of immigration and blasting a number of civil rights laws that won bipartisan agreement. Democrats slammed Sessions during confirmation hearings his previous criticism of the Voting Rights Act, his stalwart opposition to all bipartisan efforts at immigration reform, and his votes against federal hate crimes legislation and the Violence Against Women Act.
Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump, another populist politician with a streak of nativism, early in the GOP primary. He soon became one of Trump’s closest allies, and some of Sessions’ top aides played key roles in developing Trump’s policies on immigration and refugees. Many of them are now White House staff, and helped craft the controversial executive order that barred new refugees and many legal visa-holders from entering the U.S.
Democrats, dealing with a base that’s furious and demanding a fight against everything President Trump stands for, were happy to step up and battle their colleague’s confirmation.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) broke with longstanding Senate precedent to testify against his colleague’s confirmation, as did civil rights icon and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.).
That fight boiled over in the final hours of debate, as exhausted lawmakers on both sides of the aisle lost their tempers.
Republicans warned Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that she was on the verge of being reprimanded after she read a letter from former Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) slamming Sessions’ civil rights views.
When she followed that up by trying to read into the record a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King that warned against nominating Sessions to the federal bench because as U.S. attorney he’d “used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens,” they invoked an obscure Senate rule that prohibits senators from denigrating one another on the floor to shut down her speech.
That triggered a virulent response from Democrats, who one after the other read King’s letter while accusing Republicans of sexism and authoritarianism.
Even as the Senate moved toward a vote, senators on both sides were still steaming.
“I saw what happened. Now I don’t have time to go into all the details here but I will tell you this: Jeff Sessions’ hearing in 1986 was an absolute ambush,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who was in the Senate back then, fumed on the Senate floor during the vote. “You can understand why it’s very frustrating to me to listen to all those attacks and it’s particularly frustrating for me to hear it from members who weren’t even here then in 1986.”
Democrats were just as fiery.
“I want a chief law enforcement official that will be a champion of the disenfranchised and dispossessed, not a defender of discrimination and nativism,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement right after the vote closed. “I am scared for the major changes that he will bring to the Department of Justice.”
The White House’s response was to argue that if King had the chance to get to know Sessions, she might have supported him.
“I would respectfully disagree with her assessment of Sen. Sessions then and now,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said when asked about the letter Wednesday, calling Sessions “a tireless advocate of voting and civil rights.
“I would just hope that if she was still with us today that she would share the sentiments of former Sen. Specter,” Spicer said, referring to a Republican senator who’d voted against Sessions’ nomination to the bench and later said he regretted it.