Jeff Sessions’ Senate Confirmation Hearing, Day One: Democrats Fail to Ask Tough Questions
Jeff Sessions 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 charges that Democratic senators treated the Alabama senator too gently.
As the hearing began early Tuesday, multiple demonstrators were kicked out of the meeting for protesting Sessions’ potential appointment.
Many analysts 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 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.
“ ‘[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:
— lulu (@alaachak) January 10, 2017
The democrats’ Qs are incredibly frustrating. @maziehirono asking great questions but going for breadth rather than depth, getting rebuffed
— Johannah K-S (@jjjjjjjjohannah) January 10, 2017
While Franken may have been one of the few Democrats to lay into Sessions, he won’t be the last. In an unprecedented move, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey will testify against his Senate colleague 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.
“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 Departments of Justice.
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 used his line of questioning to voice his own views on federalism. Twitter didn’t let it slide:
— Ryan Z. Cortazar (@RZCortazar) January 10, 2017
Let’s come up with a replacement plan for ACA while Mike Lee teases out the finer points of Federalism. #Sessions
— Stefan Hanley (@stefan_hanley) January 10, 2017
Sessions’ hearing is scheduled to continue Wednesday, although he was pressed on a wide range of issues Tuesday. Following are some highlights.
Franken, who started 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 chance to respond.
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 on 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.
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 asked about the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under Sessions; Sessions said 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 said he opposed both waterboarding and a 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 asked 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, 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.
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 alleged terrorists without trial.
Conflicts of interest
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.) brought up an issue that could be a common concern about Trump’s proposed administration: conflict of interest. Sessions said he would recuse himself from voting on his own confirmation or the confirmation of other potential cabinet members.
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.
Asked if he’d ever chanted “Lock her up,” as some Trump supporters have done, Sessions said he hadn’t.
Several 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 antitrust legislation, which has been a recent focus of the Department of Justice. Sessions has rarely weighed in on antitrust 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 on the issue 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 Leahy when asked directly about supporting state legalization of marijuana.
Overall, the Senate Democrats asked many similar questions and didn’t treat Sessions as harshly as many liberals were hoping they would.
“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.
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.