5 Moments from Jeff Sessions’ Senate Hearing That Show How Dangerous He Is

feature image via shutterstock

Today begins day two of the Senate hearings regarding Jeff Sessions’ fitness to be confirmed as Attorney General. So far what’s been discussed in day one can already be described as “chilling” at best. His hearing is already going forward despite the fact that he’s failed to provide a great deal of documentation and there are huge gaps in his record based on what he’s provided to the committee, likely excluded because it would accurately reflect on him as deeply racist and homophobic. Even without these records and documents, however, it’s clear from Sessions’ own answers (and lack thereof) in his first day of hearings that he is a deeply bigoted man with no intention of upholding the legal gains for marginalized communities of the last 50 years — or taking the Trump administration to task as attorney general if, as they seem determined to, they begin violating the constitution on day one of the presidency. A selection of some of the lowlights of Sessions’ hearing so far:

1. Sessions equivocates on holding Trump accountable as Attorney General

Lindsey Graham (who supports Sessions for AG) asked if he “believes the Russians were behind the cyberattacks during the 2016 election;” Sessions responded that “I have done no research into that. I just know what the media has said about it,” and that while he says he would recuse himself if charges were ever pursued against Hillary Clinton, he wouldn’t commit to recusing himself if an investigation into Russian interference found that Trump and his campaign were implicated or if Trump violated the emoluments clause. “I will review it and try to do the right thing,” he said instead — which means that if Trump were to be investigated, the person in charge of prosecuting him for it would be his buddy that he gave a major government job to. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin has said these are “an obvious case for special prosecutor.”

2. Sessions is openly lying about his record on civil rights cases

Sessions has left out documents from his record regarding many of his years of service and specific events that are confirmed to have occurred, like “a 2007 speech for an event with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that seeks to decrease immigration.” Furthermore, many of the cases his documentation says he was involved in are inaccurate — he’s admitted to claiming to be involved in more civil rights cases than he actually has, and others have spoken out to reveal that Sessions wasn’t meaningfully involved with some of the remaining cases.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, said that in 2009, Sessions was interviewed as the ranking republican on the committee. In that interview, Franken noted that Sessions claimed he had filed 20 to 30 civil rights cases to desegregate schools when he served as a U.S. attorney.

“Did I misread that quote?” Franken asked.

“I believe that’s what I’ve been quoted as saying,” Sessions responded.

Sessions then admitted that the records don’t show that it was 20 to 30 and that “the number would be less than that.”

Franken said that the questionnaire Sessions had to complete for the committee for his confirmation hearing asked him to described 10 of the most significant litigated matters he personally handled. Franken said that among the cases listed, three were voting rights cases and a desegregation case.

Franken said that last week, three former Justice Department attorneys wrote an op-ed claiming that Sessions had no substantive involvement in any of the voting rights cases. Sessions said that those attorneys are distorting his record.

NPR further explains that last point:

Sessions was asked to provide the 10 most significant cases he “personally handled” as a lawyer. His list includes eight cases that were not listed in his 1986 judgeship materials, including four civil rights cases. But those newly listed cases date to the mid-1980s, something Democratic aides are casting as an effort by Sessions to belatedly “rebrand” himself as a civil rights advocate. They also question whether Sessions did much more than attach his name to legal filings, a somewhat pro forma step for U.S. attorneys.

The truth is that Sessions has actually opposed basic civil rights for Black Americans, not helped champion them, which is why testimony about his racism kept him from becoming a judge in Alabama in the 80s.

3. Sessions doesn’t think women and LGBTQ people are discriminated against as a class, or believe in tribal sovereignty

During the hearing, Sessions has been confronted with his voting records on both the updated Violence Against Women Act proposed with expanded protections, and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. In regards to the first, Sessions said he opposed it because of “a ‘concerning provision’ that gave tribal courts jurisdiction over non-tribal members” — what he’s referring to was a clause that would allow tribal courts to pursue sexual assault allegations when a non-tribal member assaulted a member of the tribe, a particularly relevant issue because Native women are the group which experiences the highest rates of sexual assault in the US. As far as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Sessions said in his hearing that he opposed it “because state prosecutions were effectively handling those crimes,” but Senator Pat Leahy confronted him with what he actually said at the time:

LEAHY: In 2009, I offered the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act as an amendment to the defense bill. It extended hate crimes protections to LGBT individuals, women, and individuals with disabilities. It passed the Senate overwhelmingly. You opposed it. You stated at a hearing that you’re not sure women or people of different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination. And then you said, “I just don’t see it.” Do you still believe women and LGBT individuals do not face the kind of discrimination that the hate crimes legislation was passed to prevent?

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman — Senator Leahy, having discussed that issue at some length, that does not sound like something I said or intended to say.

LEAHY: You did say it.

SESSIONS: I understand, but I’ve seen things taken out of context and not give an accurate picture. My view is, and was, a concern that it appeared that these cases were being prosecuted effectively in state courts where they would normally be expected to be prosecuted.

To be clear: a fundamental part of the job of Attorney General is to protect the rights of American citizens, and particularly its most vulnerable citizens. Sessions isn’t capable of doing this if he refuses to recognize that those rights and those citizens are even at risk. 2009 was not, of course, the first time Sessions acted against the interests of the LGBTQ community; Lambda Legal has a rundown of his deeply anti-LGBTQ record.

4. Sessions and Orrin Hatch appear to both be enthusiastic about federal obscenity laws

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked Sessions if he would consider as attorney general re-establishing a specific unit at the Justice Department to prosecute cases related to federal obscenity laws.

“I would consider that,” Sessions said, while adding that he wasn’t aware that such a unit had been previously disbanded.

Orrin Hatch represents Utah, which was already a fertile ground for “anti-obscenity” legislation, which is generally code for a war on pornography and sex work. Utah as a state officially labeled porn a “public health crisis,” and at Salon Whitney Strub elaborates on how this connects to a long history in the US of linking smut to other forms of ‘deviancy’:

“National leaders from Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver to FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover constantly linked smut to juvenile delinquency, sexual perversion and more. No group better embodied this resurgent anti-porn sentiment than Citizens for Decent Literature, founded by lawyer Charles Keating in late-1950s Cincinnati. CDL quickly built a national base, and its widely-seen 1963 propaganda film “Perversion for Profit” again employed a public-health lens toward smut. In it, narrator George Putnam held up posterboards showing the effects of pornography: increased VD rates, illegitimate births, juvenile delinquency and, worst of all in the Lavender Scare Fifties, such “sex deviations” as homosexuality or lesbianism! (It’s impossible to avoid exclamation marks in recounting this.) The evidence for all of this? Well, in one rare moment of candor a few years later, Charles Keating admitted he simply made it all up—which hindered CDL none, as it became the preeminent anti-porn group of the 1960s and ’70s, influencing everything from Supreme Court nominations to legal obscenity doctrine.”

Further obscenity legislation and enforcement would certainly impact people working in the porn industry, and could mean any number of negative things for communities often assumed by the religious right wing to be ‘obscene’ or ‘deviant,’ like LGBTQ people and/or sex workers, if legislation around the subject were further developed and strengthened.

5. Sessions won’t defend citizens’ voting rights

Sessions has described the Voting Rights Act, a crucial piece of legislation that championed the voting rights of disenfranchised Black and African-American voters, as “intrusive.” When questioned about this, he acknowledged that the Voting Rights Act was important, but seems to have avoided directly answering how he would enforce it.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, asked Sessions to explain his previous comment in which he described the Voting Rights Act as an “intrusive piece of legislation” and asked him how he’ll actively enforce the remaining pieces of the law such as the one that prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race.

“The Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 was one of the most important acts to deal with racial difficulties that we face,” Sessions said. “It changed the whole course of history particularly in the south.”

Sessions acknowledged that states systematically denied people the right to vote, specifically blocking black people from voting.

“It was just wrong and the Voting Rights Act confronted that,” Sessions said.

Sessions was asked about states’ voter ID laws and he said, “I think voter ID laws, properly drafted, are okay.”

In short, Sessions is characterizing blocking Black voters from the polls as an issue safely relegated to the past, not one that continues to define our present after the Supreme Court has gutted key parts of the law and many states are passing voter ID laws specifically designed to target Black voters. Despite what Sessions says about its importance, his answer indicates he has no interest in enforcing it, and DOES have an interest in continuing the rollout of voter ID laws even further.

Some people are speaking out against Sessions — in today’s hearing, Senator Cory Booker broke with Senate custom to testify against his fellow Senator Sessions, saying that “The role of attorney general… requires a more courageous empathy than Sen. Sessions’ record demonstrates.” Rep. John Lewis has also testified to ask “whether Sessions’ call for law and order means what it did in Alabama when I was growing up,” calling out the racist dogwhistle of “law and order” that dates back to Reagan and that Sessions, Trump and a number of others associated with his campaign have used. It remains to be seen whether their words (and your calls to your senators, listing specific reasons why they need to oppose Sessions’ confirmation!) will be enough to keep Sessions away from the AG seat.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1073 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. Thank you for this, Rachel. I mentioned on the A+ post yesterday how its a shame that your politics reporting doesn’t get enough traffic or comments, and articles like this are exactly why. This was a very articulate, succinct, and easy-to-read explainer for those of us who haven’t been able to follow the Sessions hearing so closely, exactly the sort of thing we probably need. Thanks again.

  2. Hey, Rachel! Thanks for this great summary. I’ve been contacting my Senators and signing petitions on-line to oppose Sessions’nomination. Also, while I’m commenting, I recently read your article (written last year) re: Planned Parenthood in which you explain the truth vs. the “trashing”of what they actually do. I was interested to learn that so much of PP’s services are paid by Medicaid;that there is NOT PP funding in the federal budget.Some of out here are reading your work!

  3. How about Sheldon Whitehouse questioning him on secular employees?

    “Whitehouse replied, with a leading, and perhaps slightly conclusory question: “And a secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious, correct?” At which point Sessions responded, “Well, I’m not sure.” For a few seconds the Senate chamber seemed to go completely silent.”

    [I took the quote from a Slate article http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2017/01/jeff_sessions_confirmation_hearing_had_one_moment_that_revealed_why_so_many.html ]

  4. Our own Attorney General in Britain, MP Jeremy Wright, is nowhere near as bad, but also consistently voted against equal marriage in 2013, was found to have fiddled his expenses claims and was made a QC (accolade for a top barrister) simply through his appointment. UGH.

    • Likewise, George Brandis, Australia’s Attorney General. Another throughly reprehensible human. Everything above as well as snout in the trough and fingers in the public purse.

      Where do they find these, creatures?

  5. When he was asked about marriage equality he said in the hearing that he is okay with it because the supreme court made it into settled law. Sessions is going to be an AG who is actually going to uphold the law of the land, and not interpret it freely to fit some kind of radical agenda. This is to our mutual benefit, especially to that of marginalized communities because it will mean that immigration laws are actually enforced. At this point marginalized communities bear the burden of out of control illegal immigration as a result of increased crime, depressed wages and lack of job opportunities. Gay marriage will also remain because he will uphold the law of the land.
    And about conflict of interest and accountability. Trump is doing more than actually required by law to ensure there will be no conflicts of interests. The law allows, because he is president, that he can actually run his business and run the country at the same time, but he chose to completely disentangle himself from his business so that he will serve the people, not himself. It’s actually quiet ironic that liberals are talking about an AG holding a presidential candidate / or president accountable. Remember Bill Clinton’s meeting with loretta lynch on the tarmac just before no prosecution for her illegal private email server was recommended by the FBI? We know why, because she needed to become president and president Obama was implicated as well because his emails were on that server.
    I personally think this whole deal with hate crimes is harmful because it makes one victim more important than another victim. I also think liberals need to get their heads examined because they have become brain dead binary robots. I am sorry to say it, but I truly feel there is no other way to describe it. One puts in republican they start screaming racist, homophobe, misogynist, islamophobe , and when one puts in democrat all is rosy. Guess what my fellow ladies, not all old white man are racists, homophobes, misogynists and islamophobes, some are actually people with their hearts in the right place who want to make this country better for everybody.

  6. Thank you for this analysis. It continues to baffle me how people can actively contradict themselves and backtrack and there can be proof of it all…and they still manage to face almost no repercussions for it. I seriously hope the senators break with tradition and don’t confirm him even though he is one of their peers because the man is seriously scary.

  7. My wife and I walked downtown to a local coffee shop. Across the street is the local branch office for our federal representative. Inspired by this post and others on Autostraddle about getting engaged politically, my wife and I stopped in to express our concerns about Sessions. It’s the first time I’ve done such a thing and it felt good to voice our concerns to someone who can pass them along.

    On the walk back home my wife and I were having the debate about if it’s better to call to the federal office of our representatives. But at least we were able to voice our concerns in what is hopefully a productive manner.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.