Jeff Sessions will be Trump’s attorney general — and Democrats are powerless to stop him
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions just got a step closer to becoming the next attorney general of the United States after two days of debate where Democrats questioned his civil rights record and whether he could operate independently of a president he stumped for on the campaign trail.
Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee ultimately voted along party lines around noon Wednesday: The 11 Republicans on the committee voted for Sessions, and all nine Democrats voted against. The vote now goes to the full Senate, controlled by Republicans. For Democrats to block his nomination, they’d have to flip three Senate Republicans. Right now, that doesn’t look likely.
The Justice Department, which Sessions would oversee, has had a particularly tumultuous week. Late Monday, Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates for instructing the DOJ not to defend his executive order banning refugees and restricting the entry of foreigners from seven Muslim-majority countries. The order, signed Friday, provoked widespread public protests and an outcry from some lawmakers, who called his actions “un-American,” “egregious,” “concerning,” and “unconstitutional.”
Activists and constituents put major pressure on Democratic senators to delay Sessions’ hearing until the ban was lifted, and the senators didn’t miss the symbolic value of Yates’ gesture. In fact, a video from her own confirmation hearing in 2015 surfaced not long after she was fired. In the video, Sen. Sessions asks Yates whether she, as deputy attorney general, would challenge the president on executing “unlawful” views. “Senator, I believe the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution and to give their independent legal advice to the president,” Yates replied.
Democratic senators during Sessions’ hearing questioned whether he would be an independent attorney general and stand up to the president if and when needed, as Yates did. Some noted Sessions’ cozy relationship with Trump throughout his presidential campaign. “He was the first senator to endorse Trump,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein noted. “He was the first senator to endorse [Trump]. He has attended at least 45 Trump campaign events. He wore the hat. He was a leading voice and during the campaign he spoke at large rallies, smiling while crowds chanted ‘Lock her up.'”
Democrats, such as Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, expressed concern that Sessions would not robustly defend the civil rights of all Americans, including LGBTQ Americans, women, and minorities, as the Obama administration had done. The allegations that Sessions harbors racial bias — the same allegations that cost him a federal judgeship 30 years ago — continued to dog his road to confirmation this time around. During the hearings earlier this month, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker became the first sitting senator to testify against a colleague for a Cabinet position. Civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis from Georgia also testified against Sessions.
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, touted Sessions’ record in the Senate and testified to the good character of their longtime colleague.
For Sessions to be officially confirmed as the next attorney general, the full Senate will have to vote for him. That date is yet to be announced.