There hasn’t been a person named by president-elect Donald Trump to any position who hasn’t been lambasted by the New York Times as the worst, most dangerous, choice for that position ever. That goes for the Attorney General pick, Jeff Sessions.
It would be nice to report that Mr. Sessions, who is now 69, has conscientiously worked to dispel the shadows that cost him the judgeship. Instead, the years since his last confirmation hearing reveal a pattern of dogged animus to civil rights and the progress of black Americans and immigrants.
Based on his record, we can form a fairly clear picture of what his Justice Department would look like:
For starters, forget about aggressive protection of civil rights, and of voting rights in particular. Mr. Sessions has called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a “piece of intrusive legislation.” Under him, the department would most likely focus less on prosecutions of minority voter suppression and more on rooting out voter fraud, that hallowed conservative myth. As a federal prosecutor, Mr. Sessions brought voter-fraud charges against three civil rights workers trying to register black voters in rural Alabama. The prosecution turned up 14 allegedly doctored ballots out of 1.7 million cast, and the jury voted to acquit.
What’s surprising about this, beyond arguing about “the years since” and relying upon the years before, is that they couldn’t find far worse stuff to say about Sessions. He’s a senator. He’s written tons of op-eds, spoken at a great many hearings, and that’s it?
But that’s not it. Not by a long shot. What this reflects isn’t the scope of Sessions’ nastiness, but the attack on Sessions as a racist. This reflects the focus on AG as keeper of civil rights under the Equal Protection Clause, and the concern is that Sessions will go full Ashcroft on America.
A harder look at Sessions comes from Alice Speri at The Intercept:
There is no other way to describe Jeff Sessions but as a career racist.
Well, that’s clear enough.
At that time, Sen. Ted Kennedy called Sessions “a throwback to a disgraceful era” and his nomination “a disgrace for the Justice Department.”
But that was 30 years ago, and it appears the earlier, disgraceful era Kennedy was referring to is what Trump has in mind when he speaks of making America great “again.”
The unfortunate circularity of impugning Sessions by attributing racism to Trump is rhetorical indulgence, but there’s more substance to follow:
Among other positions, Sessions opposed the Violence Against Women Act, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the expansion of anti-hate legislation to include sexual orientation.
So Sessions isn’t progressive? Check.
He fought the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings, immigration reform, and criminal justice reform.
So Sessions isn’t progressive? Check.
Decades later, in 2013, he praised the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, denying its impact on black voters, even as the immediate impact in his own state was that officials tried to close 31 DMV offices, in majority black counties, just as the state passed more restrictive voter ID requirements.
So Sessions agreed with a Supreme Court opinion? Check.
In February, Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump. And following Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” remark, the future top prosecutor in the country said, “I don’t characterize that as sexual assault.”
So Sessions is creepy, as is the person elected president? Check. Or as so many Americans want to know, why didn’t Trump choose Lady Gaga to be Attorney General? How is it possible Lena Dunham didn’t make the short list?
But the adorable New York Times makes a point it likely didn’t intend to make:
Forget, also, any federal criminal-justice reform, which was on the cusp of passage in Congress before Mr. Trump’s “law and order” campaign.
While saying reform was “on the cusp” may be wild hyperbole, given that the reforms were tepid, to be generous, and President Obama had eight years to do something and never got around to it, likely because was too busy pondering whether to issue his first pardon or making sure all those illegals got deported. Or playing golf.
No, this is neither to support Jeff Sessions, nor excuse his excesses. He will likely be an awful attorney general in every respect. But the disconnect between what America voted for* and progressive complaints is what makes this remarkable. It’s not as if these concerns weren’t on the table. They failed to prevail.
You can scream about racism and sexism all you want, calling Trump voters deplorable and unfriending them on Facebook, if your preference is to assume that this is all about your values not being the only thing everyone else cares about, or that there can be no non-hateful reason why anyone didn’t vote like you did. After all, that worked so well before the election, shaming anyone who didn’t enthusiastically share like your twits racist and sexist.
But what of the current Attorney General, remembered as a paragon of reform as United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and dedicated to the protection of constitutional rights when she assumed office? She’s already on the lecture circuit, extolling her virtues.
“There is nothing foreordained about our march toward a more just and peaceful future,” Ms. Lynch said Monday, speaking to an interfaith group at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center in northern Virginia. “Our centuries-long project of creating a more perfect union was not the product of fate or destiny. It was the result of countless individuals making the choice to stand up, to demand recognition, to refuse to rest until they knew that their children were inheriting a nation that was more tolerant, more inclusive and more equal.”
Inclusive, like the Metropolitan Detention Center? Tolerant like the 100:1 crack to cocaine ratio or the mandatory minimums charged at every possible opportunity? There are issues, voting rights is huge, and there are issues, transgender bathrooms, that aren’t nearly as clear, and Loretta Lynch’s legacy may suffer in the hands of Jeff Sessions. But how much?
It is sobering to hear a departing attorney general implicitly telling vulnerable Americans that the federal government may fail to protect their rights and that they will have to do this work themselves. But any other message would whitewash the painful truth.
As long as we’re not going to “whitewash the painful truth,” the question is whether it’s a big deal that the Obama Department of Justice would only execute you once, while the Trump Department of Justice would execute you, then kick you in the head a few times for good measure. Either way, you still end up dead. America elected both Obama and Trump president. If you don’t like Attorneys General who suck, then you should have thought of that when you were voting rather than complain about it afterward.
*And it appears unfortunately necessary to note that Clinton’s winning the popular vote is both irrelevant and comes with a critical caveat that, but for California, Trump won the popular vote.