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Jeff Sessions’ Senate Confirmation Hearing, Day One: Democrats Neglect to Ask Tough Questions

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 18:31
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  Sen. Jeff Sessions during his Senate Confirmation Hearing Tuesday. (Screen shot via NPR)

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is the first member of Donald Trump’s proposed administration to receive a Senate confirmation hearing, and the first day of discussion sparked vocal protests and political analysis on numerous issues.

The hearing began early Tuesday, and multiple demonstrators were kicked out of the meeting for vocally opposing Sessions’ potential appointment.

Many people seemed disappointed with the Democrats’ performance. “Democrats are definitely not going for the jugular in this hearing,” wrote New York Times reporter Charlie Savage. “It seems clear that Jeff Sessions will be confirmed as the next attorney general.”

The hearing started off on a rowdy note, as Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) spent “10 minutes of questioning to suggest that Sessions was actively misrepresenting his own record,” Mother Jones reports.

It continues:
“ ‘[O]ur country needs an attorney general who doesn’t misrepresent or inflate their level of involvement on any given issue,” Franken concluded.’ ”

But most other Democrats were not so harsh in their line of questioning, drawing criticism from their base.

“I’ll try to be nice to you,” Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii told Sessions as she began to interrogate him. Commentators on Twitter quickly chimed in:

While Franken may have been one of the only Democrats to lay into Sessions, he won’t be the last. In an unprecedented move, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey will testify against Sessions Wednesday.

“This would be the first time in Senate history that a sitting senator will testify against another sitting senator for a Cabinet post during a confirmation,” CNN reports.

It continues:

“I do not take lightly the decision to testify against a Senate colleague,” Booker said. “But the immense powers of the attorney general combined with the deeply troubling views of this nominee is a call to conscience.”

Many within the Senate expressed their support of Sessions during the hearing. Texas Republican Ted Cruz, in particular, called Sessions a “superb” choice for Attorney General and lamented what he sees as a terrible history of Democratic-led Justice Departments.

Later in the day, after numerous weak lines of questioning from the Democrats, Cruz “commend[ed] the Democrats on this committee for showing admirable constraint.”

Other Republicans were more covert in their support—Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, for instance, routinely diverted his line of questioning to voice his own views on federalism. Twitter didn’t let it slide:

Sessions’ hearing is scheduled to continue tomorrow, although he was pressed on a wide range of issues Tuesday. Below are some highlights.

Civil rights

Franken, who started off the hearing on a high note, jumped back in near the end of the hearing to interrogate Sessions about the purpose of the Voting Rights Act. Sessions didn’t get much of a word in edgewise.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California pushed him to explain his position on abortion, and he was later questioned about his stance on LGBT and women’s rights.

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy later quizzed Sessions about Trump’s infamous remarks about grabbing women by their genitals, and asked Sessions if acting out these remarks would constitute sexual assault. Sessions replied that “clearly it would be.”

Racism and discrimination

And of course, Sessions was quickly asked about his views on race, as many of those opposed to Sessions argue that his past incidents of racist behavior make him an inappropriate choice for Attorney General.

When asked about his personality, Sessions vehemently denied racist behavior and claimed he’s been “caricatured,” according to NPR.

“He forcefully defended his record, saying he ‘did not’ harbor the ‘racial animosities’ of which he’s been accused,” NPR continues, “saying they are ‘damnably false.’ ”

Utah Republican Orrin Hatch later came to Sessions’ defense on the issue, arguing that the accusations of racism are “smears” against Sessions and his supporters.

Hirono also used her time to ask about the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under Sessions, and Sessions stated that he would make sure state laws were not discriminatory.

Immigration and foreign policy

He was also questioned about his views on torture and Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban.” Sessions stated that he opposed waterboarding and also opposes the ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

“But he noted that Mr. Trump has since clarified that the restriction should be on immigration from countries that support terrorism,” The New York Times reports. “He said religious views—where, for example, they include justification for violence against Americans—should be considered as part of the visa progress.”

Hirono later added to this conversation by asking about Sessions’ views on immigration and minorities, and added that her own mother immigrated to America to escape an abusive marriage. Many Americans “are terrified that they will have no place in President Trump’s America,” Hirono told Sessions.

Sessions again avoided accountability by arguing that the State Department would be responsible for “extreme vetting,” and noted that immigrants whose “religious views [encompass] dangerous doctrines and terroristic attacks” warrant intense scrutiny.

National security

Sessions only briefly commented on national security, when Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked him about the Freedom of Information Act. Sessions verbally pledged to follow the law when it comes to surveillance issues.

Feinstein also pushed Sessions to discuss Guantánamo detainees, but Sessions did not have a concrete response to the issue of detaining possible terrorists without trial.

Conflicts of interest

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) brought up an issue prevalent in Trump’s incoming administration: conflict of interest. Sessions stated that he would recuse himself from voting on his own confirmation or the confirmation on other potential cabinet members.

When asked how he would have handled the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton, Sessions “said he would recuse himself and favored a special prosecutor to carry out any future investigations,” Reuters reports.

When asked if he’d ever chanted “Lock her up,” Sessions said he hadn’t.

Multiple senators continued to ask Sessions about whether he would recuse himself from specific cases.


And as promised, Blumenthal also interrogated Sessions on gun legislation. Matt Apuzzo, a New York Times reporter, explains why Blumenthal’s question was actually a home run for Sessions:

Mr. Blumenthal just tossed Mr. Sessions a slow pitch, right over the middle. Mr. Sessions has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, but he is also outspoken on the idea that prosecutors don’t do enough to charge people with federal gun crimes.

Sessions was also briefly asked about anti-trust legislation, which has been a recent focus of the Department of Justice. Sessions has rarely weighed in on trust issues over the course of his career, and had little to say to Mike Lee on the matter.

Multiple senators quizzed Sessions about the role of the federal government when handling conflicting state laws, particularly the role of marijuana. Despite his vocal history of opposition to marijuana legalization, Sessions gave a non-answer about the limited resources of the Justice Department.

“I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law,” Sessions told Patrick Leahy when asked directly about supporting state legalization of marijuana.
Overall, the Senate Democrats asked many similar questions and didn’t interrogate Sessions as harshly as many liberals were hoping for.

“Senate Democrats do not have the votes, by themselves, to prevent Mr. Sessions from becoming attorney general, and they have spared their colleague any vitriol, doing little to undermine his confirmation,” The New York Times concluded.

Sessions was able to give vague answers to numerous questions without being prodded further, although he took a more moderate stance on issues than expected—and was particularly adamant that he would be able to say “no” to the incoming president, Donald Trump.

If day two of Sessions’ Senate confirmation hearing is anything like day one, it is unlikely that his appointment to the position of Attorney General will fail.

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