At Sessions Hearing, Dems Focus On Fired Acting Justice AG

Jan 31, 2017
Originally published on January 31, 2017 10:45 pm

The Senate Judiciary Committee once again debated the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. Democrats on the Republican-controlled committee raised objections to his nomination. The committee met a day after President Trump fired the acting attorney general over her refusal to defend the immigration order banning travel from seven majority Muslim countries.

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On Capitol Hill, what was supposed to be a debate on Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department turned into a referendum over his executive order on immigration. A Senate committee had planned to vote on Trump's pick, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. But last night, Trump fired the acting Attorney General Sally Yates. She had refused to defend the executive order, which temporarily bans refugees and travelers from seven Muslim majority countries. The White House accused Yates of betraying the Department of Justice. With us to talk about all this is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: So the Judiciary Committee met today to talk about Sessions, but it sounds like they actually talked more about Sally Yates than Trump's nominee.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Democrats made this hearing all about the need for the Justice Department and the attorney general to act independently of the White House. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein offered a lot of praise for the way Sally Yates left the department. And Feinstein said her firing harkened back to a dark time in the Nixon era.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: That statement took guts. That statement said what an independent attorney general should do. That statement took a steel spine to stand up, and say no. That is what an attorney general must be willing and able to do.

JOHNSON: Now, Ari, Feinstein also pointed out that Jeff Sessions was one of Trump's earliest supporters in Congress, and he actually wore the make America great again hat on the campaign trail. As such, Dianne Feinstein thinks Sessions will not have the backbone to stand up to this White House.

SHAPIRO: Sessions developed a reputation in the Senate for being a hardliner on immigration much like Donald Trump. What do we know about Session's involvement in this executive order?

JOHNSON: Well, late last night, Sessions sent some written materials over to the Senate that helped shed a little bit of light on the situation. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley says Sessions denied helping to draft that immigration order.


CHARLES GRASSLEY: Some on the other side have raised concerns about Sen. Sessions, whether he was involved in drafting or reviewing the executive orders. It's not clear to me why it would be a problem even if he had been involved, but the fact of the matter is he was not involved.

JOHNSON: During the hearing today, though, Ari, some of the Democrats on the committee said they have their doubts about his involvement actually. They say that's important because, in their view, this immigration order is unconstitutional discrimination against Muslim refugees and travelers on the basis of their religion.

SHAPIRO: Everyone on this committee knows Jeff Sessions personally. He's a senator who sits on this committee. Is there any chance he might actually not get through?

JOHNSON: Well, so many lawmakers wanted to talk today that the committee actually delayed the vote until Wednesday, but there's no sign Republicans are moving away from Sessions. In fact, people like Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said Democrats are just having a hard time coming to terms with losing the election. Who did they think President Trump was going to pick to lead the Justice Department, Lindsey Graham said today.

SHAPIRO: By the way, what's happening at the Justice Department? Sally Yates was fired last night. Who's running things now?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Late last night, Sally Yates' nameplate came off the fourth floor of the Justice Department office. The White House has put another longtime-career prosecutor, Dana Boente of Virginia, in charge for now as acting attorney general. Boente says he will defend Trump's immigration order. But he only expects to be on the job for a few days. He thinks Jeff Sessions will get a speedy confirmation maybe by the end of the week from his colleagues in the United States Senate.

SHAPIRO: I'm imagining in the front of the Justice Department where they have those photographs of the attorney general, the president, and the vice president, the photographs going up, coming down, going up, coming down with each passing day (laughter).

JOHNSON: Well, I think that photographs of Obama and Loretta Lynch have come down. Jeff Sessions not up there yet but maybe by the weekend.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks a lot.

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