5 Things To Watch For In Jeff Sessions' Attorney General Hearings

Jan 10, 2017
Originally published on January 11, 2017 2:18 pm

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions is the first of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees to get a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Sessions will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in his bid to become the U.S. attorney general. The setting's a familiar one for Sessions, a 20-year veteran of Congress who has sat on the panel for decades. But there's good reason if the senator is experiencing a few butterflies. It's the same committee that rejected his bid for a lifetime-tenured federal judge post in 1986, after witnesses testified he made racially insensitive remarks.

Senate moderates appear to be throwing their support behind Sessions despite staunch opposition from the civil rights community.

Here are some things to watch over two days of hearings:

1. Past versus future

How much of the hearing will be devoted to rehashing the remarkable 1986 clash over his district court judge nomination, which surfaced remarks Sessions denied or passed off as bad jokes — including a statement that he thought the KKK was all right until he learned its members smoked marijuana.

Civil rights advocates have labored to remind lawmakers about Sessions' role in another case: his failed 1985 prosecution of black voting-rights activists, including allies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for helping register others to vote. Former Justice Department official and Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick wrote this month that "to use prosecutorial discretion to attempt to criminalize voter assistance is wrong and should be disqualifying for any aspirant to the nation's highest law enforcement post."

2. Approach to police

From his perch in Congress, Sessions has warned about a "war on police" and criticized the Obama Justice Department for being too quick to investigate local law enforcement. That foreshadows a marked shift from the past eight years, when the Civil Rights Division at DOJ launched about two dozen investigations into excessive force and patterns of discrimination among local police agencies.

Al Sharpton, of the National Action Network, told reporters he hopes Democratic senators will lean on Sessions at the hearing to stay the course on a federal case against the officer who shot Walter Scott as he fled, unarmed, in North Charleston, S.C. Sharpton also wants Sessions to promise the U.S. Justice Department will continue its investigation into the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island, N.Y.

3. A new "War on Drugs"?

Sessions is among the most fervent drug warriors in the Congress. "Good people don't smoke marijuana," he said last year at a Senate hearing (see about the nine-minute mark in video below). He has also said the country is in the middle of a "crime wave," although most scholars say overall crime remains near record lows despite a troubling uptick in violence across Chicago and several other cities.

Expect questions about his approach to the mostly hands-off strategy the Obama Justice Department took to marijuana legalization in states such as Washington, Oregon and Colorado.

Republicans and Democrats on the panel may also ask about Sessions' opposition to a bipartisan bill that would lighten sentences for certain drug crimes. On the other hand, Sessions collaborated with Democrats in 2010 to reduce disparities in punishment for crack cocaine offenders, an issue that disproportionately hurt African-American and Latino defendants.

"When he hired me in 2008, this was a priority," said Matthew Miner, a former chief counsel for Sessions on the Judiciary Committee. "He later told me, 'I want you to work with [Illinois Democrat] Sen. Durbin's staff. ... Let's see if we can come up with something that solves the problem.'"

Miner said Sessions is "a guy who is in the weeds" on crime policy and statistics.

4. Immigration

In the Senate, Sessions famously opposed a compromise that would have overhauled the immigration system. He has called for new limits on people to enter the country and once said "almost no one coming from the Dominican Republic to the United States is coming here because they have a provable skill that would benefit us."

Janet Murgia, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, recently told reporters that Sessions "apparently never heard of Oscar de la Renta, David 'Big Papi' Ortiz or the son of Dominican immigrants, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, just to name a few."

If he becomes attorney general, Sessions would lead the immigration courts.

5. Levels of deference

Will lawmaker Dianne Feinstein, new to the job as top Democrat on the committee, show her longtime colleague some senatorial deference, or go on the attack?

Likewise, how much deference will Sessions show to his president-elect? The Justice Department occupies a special role in the federal government. It is supposed to operate independently from the White House on matters of prosecution and investigation. Look for Democrats to push Sessions on his close ties to Trump (his staff helped write his immigration plan, and he campaigned with him, for example), and whether he'll separate himself if he wins confirmation.

Questioners also are likely to press Sessions on his past statements in support of controversial Trump positions, including a proposed ban on Muslims from entering the United States, his idea that torture of detainees "worked," and statements by the president-elect in a leaked Access Hollywood videotape about unwanted grabbing of women did not constitute sexual assault.

Then there's the question of whether the president-elect may be running afoul of the law. House Democrat Jerrold Nadler of New York is urging his Senate counterparts to make that a centerpiece of the Sessions hearings. Nadler said it's "vital that any nominee for attorney general commit to an independent investigation of Mr. Trump's conflicts, as well as the enforcement of whatever laws are determined to be violated."

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The first of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees gets a hearing this morning. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions was one of Trump's earliest supporters in Congress, now he's in line to become the next attorney general. But a big question looms over today's hearing - can a man who was rejected for a federal judgeship 30 years ago for making racially insensitive remarks lead the Justice Department today? With us to talk about this is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Good morning, Carrie.


MARTIN: So let's go back in time a bit, 1986. This is when the Senate rejected Jeff Sessions for a judgeship. Many senators from both parties took issue with comments that he had made about black lawyers and comments he made about the KKK. Remind us what happened then.

JOHNSON: Lawyers at the Justice Department actually came forward during that process to express concern about a series of statements Jeff Sessions made. One lawyer said Jeff Sessions had called an African-American the word boy. Another said Sessions made a remark about the KKK that he used to think the group was all right until he found out they smoked pot. Now, Sessions denied some of those allegations and said others were just a bad joke. He said people painted a misleading portrait of him.

MARTIN: All right. So now 30 years later, has Jeff Sessions changed or have the views of the Senate changed or both?

JOHNSON: Well, a little bit of both, Rachel. One important thing that's changed is that for the past 20 years, Jeff Sessions has been a United States senator, a member of the club. In fact, he sits on the Judiciary Committee, the same panel that rejected him all those years ago and that will consider him today. He's pretty popular on the Hill. And he has reached across the aisle on occasion, once even reaching a deal with Democrats in the Senate gym to overhaul sentences for drug defendants.

MARTIN: A civil rights movement is afoot. Civil rights groups haven't really forgotten that fight over Sessions from the 1980s, and they're gathering evidence about his record in Congress, evidence that concerns them. What can you tell us about that effort?

JOHNSON: Well, all the reporters on the DOJ beat including me have gotten tons and tons of reports over the last few weeks detailing Sessions' record on the Hill. They're protesting his approach to voting rights. He's called the Voting Rights Act intrusive. His vote against the Violence Against Women Act, his vote against the Matthew Shepard hate crimes bill and his alleged antipathy towards same-sex marriage and transgender rights. Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund says lawmakers should be asking this question.

SHERRILYN IFILL: The question is not what is in Jeff Sessions' heart. The question is - what in his record over 40 years suggests that we can trust him to enforce the nation's civil rights laws?

JOHNSON: And Ifill and other leaders including the former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick are really urging lawmakers to dig into that record.

MARTIN: All right. So today begins the first of two days of hearings on Sessions' record. What kind of questions is he likely to get?

JOHNSON: A whole bunch about whether he'll support some of the things that Donald Trump said on the campaign trail. For instance, Sessions and Trump have both said torture works, but the FBI and CIA officials say they don't want to return to those dark days. Sessions also said he supports some kind of ban on Muslims entering the U.S., but there are questions about whether that's discriminating against an entire category of people on the basis of their religion.

MARTIN: Sessions has lined up a lot of support though from law enforcement in particular, former Justice Department officials, too. Who's going to be testifying on his behalf?

JOHNSON: A lot of luminaries - former Judge Michael Mukasey, who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, another Bush official, and an African-American who says he can attest that Jeff Sessions is not a racist. And, Rachel, there's also the head of the Fraternal Order of Police. That's the country's largest police union which is backing Sessions as a friend for cops.

MARTIN: So it sounds like he's got the support he needs. Any chance that Jeff Sessions does not become the next U.S. attorney general?

JOHNSON: Rachel, there's always a chance. You never know if there's going to be a slip up in the way a nominee answers questions. And in fact late last night, we learned that Cory Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, is actually going to testify against Jeff Sessions which doesn't happen very often, if ever. But really for Democrats, the best strategy with these hearings may be to try to get Sessions to make promises to do things or promises not to do things.

Now, one of the things they may try to get Sessions to say is that he'll aggressively investigate any possible conflicts of interest or other corruption in the Trump administration. They also as Democrats want him to say they will not - that he will not order the Justice Department to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton.

MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.