Author : Amy Davidson
Posted : January 10th,2017
There are areas that are rightly clear and right, there are areas that may be gray, and there are areas that are unacceptable,” Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, said on Tuesday, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “And a good Attorney General needs to know where those lines are, to help the President where possible and to resist improper, unacceptable actions.” But what, exactly, is unacceptable to Sessions, when it comes to Donald Trump? The hearing did not quite manage to wrest an answer from Sessions on that point, despite some disturbing glimpses. Nor did the Democrats manage, at least on the first day, to present a clear narrative of why Sessions is unacceptable—something that, given the material they had, one might have imagined they could do. Sessions was denied confirmation as a federal judge, in 1986, with, as I’ve written before, good reason. Then, the hearing uncovered comments he had made about race and a troubling record when it came to civil-rights enforcement; more recently, Sessions served as an unabashed cheerleader for Donald Trump at his ugliest, most jingoistic moments. But what Democrats mostly sought to do was to offer ways for Sessions to distinguish himself from Trump—to drag him into the gray, perhaps with hopes that he would, in turn, do his part to keep Trump out of the worst of the murk.
Sessions’s comment about gray areas had come in answer to a question from Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, the committee’s chairman, who presented the proposition that the Attorney General was not “the President’s lawyer” but someone who might have to push back against the White House—and “sometimes Presidents don’t like to be told no.” Grassley added, almost apologetically, “The reason I ask that is that I know you worked very hard for the President-elect.” Sessions had. There were weeks during the campaign when the cameras rarely seemed to catch him without a “Make America Great Again” cap on his head. At rallies, he had railed about Hillary Clinton’s alleged crookedness, so ardently that he said—in one piece of news to emerge from the hearing—that he’d realized it would be best if he recused himself from any further investigations involving the Clinton Foundation. Sessions had defended Trump when the candidate first suggested a ban on Muslims entering the United States, although since then both he and the President-elect have experimented with ways to present the idea in more polite, or just less blatantly unconstitutional, terms. On that point, Sessions’s exchange with Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, was revealing, both about the future Trump Administration’s approach to Muslim Americans and about the effort to confirm Sessions. After a few jokes about Clemson beating Alabama in the college football championship, Graham said, “Muslims—as you know, me and the President-elect have had our differences, about religious tests. Would you support a law that says you can’t come to America because you are a Muslim?” Graham asked.
“No,” Sessions replied.
“Would you support a law that says, if you’re a Muslim, if you say you’re a Muslim, and we ask you, ‘What does that mean to you?,’ well, that means ‘I’ve got to kill everyone that’s different from me,’ we say you can’t come?”
“I think that would be a prudent decision,” Sessions said.
Graham said that he thought so, too, and also that he hoped we were “smart enough” to know that that wasn’t most Muslims. Sessions, though, interjected, “But it can be the religion of that person.”
“That’s right. That’s what we’re trying to get at here,” Graham said.
What, exactly, were they trying to get at? Senator Mazie Hirono, of Hawaii, who repeatedly asked Sessions what he meant when he said “extreme views” might keep people out of America, may have come closest to getting Sessions to acknowledge that, as she put it, “religious views would be a factor,” as cloaked as the discussion was in talk of “extreme vetting” and keeping out people from “dangerous areas.”
Graham had also asked about the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, which Sessions said he believed had met its purpose “marvellously well.” He didn’t want it closed. (This was one of the many points in the hearing when protesters interrupted.) Later, when Graham asked Sessions if he believed in indefinite detention for those captured in the war on terror—an ill-defined battlefield—until that conflict ended, Sessions said he did. And how long might that take? “Decades,” Sessions said. Sessions was given credit, in the coverage of the hearing, for acknowledging that he believed waterboarding was illegal—at least presently—as it clearly is. Indeed, one of the main exercises in the hearing involved Democrats asking Sessions if he would obey the law, even if he disagreed with it, and Sessions taking the opportunity to say that he would, indeed, not behave like a criminal. The standards, these days, may simply not be so high.
The Times, in its coverage of the hearings, noted one telling discrepancy: in his 1986 hearing, Sessions didn’t deny saying that he thought that the N.A.A.C.P. and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union were “un-American,” but said that he was referring to times when they got into areas that he considered none of their business, like politics or “foreign policy,” and at any rate he didn’t mean any harm. This time, he said that the attribution of the comment to him was simply false. When those earlier hearings were revisited Tuesday, it mostly involved Republicans asking him to share how hurtful the whole experience had been. “I know what it’s like to be accused, sometimes, of being a conservative from the South. That means something other than a conservative,” Graham said, speaking Southern man to Southern man. “How does that make you feel?” Sessions allowed that “it was very painful.” The Republicans on the committee tried to portray him as a forgotten hero of the civil-rights movement. Sessions added to that narrative by mentioning his role in getting recognition, in recent years, for actual heroes of the movement, including those who had braved violence crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the march on Selma. Sessions said that he had a “wonderful picture I cherish with John Lewis and other people on the bridge.” The odd thing is that Sessions’s brave actions, even in the telling of his supporters, seemed mostly to involve not obstructing the normal course of justice. Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, mentioned that he had played the role in the prosecution of Klansmen for a brutal murder—“Not the actions of an individual who is motivated by racial animus,” she said.
That case was also cited by Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, although, as The Atlantic pointed out earlier this week, there was testimony in 1986 indicating that Sessions had initially discouraged attorneys in his office from pursuing it, although he was supportive once they had doggedly built the case. (Senator Al Franken, of Minnesota, managed to point to other exaggerations about Sessions’s role in civil-right cases as well.) But to hear Cruz tell it, it was Sessions who, almost single-handedly, brought down the Klan in Alabama.
Cruz had three appearances as a questioner—a disheartening flashback to the days of the Republican Presidential campaign. In the first, he unctuously said that he was “heartened” to hear Democrats talk about the rule of law, a concept he suggested was alien to them. In the second, he shifted his tone to smugness, congratulating them for, in effect, not going hard after Sessions. They did, at times—but in a scattershot way that would tend to leave many people watching the hearing confused about just who Sessions was. The third time Cruz had the microphone, he used it to talk about his and Sessions’s shared alarm about “criminal aliens.” Cruz said that he had been down at the border with Mexico and felt the “palpable relief” of agents who finally had a President like Donald Trump, a man Cruz himself once portrayed as a pathological liar. Sessions, who had deflected questions from Senator Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, and others about what might happen to Dreamers if Obama’s executive orders protecting them were repealed, agreed they had a good deal of work to do. In the Senate chamber, there was no feeling of palpable relief. The first day of hearings ended late, tangled up in gray.