If anyone had doubts that Trump’s presidency would return white supremacy to power, Friday’s announcement that the president-elect has tapped Alabama Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (named after a Confederate general) to head the Department of Justice should settle the question.
There is no other way to describe Jeff Sessions but as a career racist.
Following an election that at times seemed to be a referendum on race, Sessions’s appointment at the helm of the agency that’s supposed to protect all Americans’ constitutional rights should terrify anyone with any respect for civil liberties and our justice system.
This is not the first time Sessions has earned a presidential nomination as an administrator of justice. In 1986, President Reagan tapped him to serve as a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, but at the time the Senate found him too racist for the post, and he became the second nominee in 50 years to be denied an appointment.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions was pressed on accusations that he had called a black prosecutor “boy” and a white civil rights attorney “a disgrace to his race.” He was called out on his comment that he thought the Ku Klux Klan “was OK until I found out they smoked pot” and that the NAACP and ACLU were “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people.”
(Sessions denied calling the prosecutor “boy” but not the other comments.)
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.”
If Sessions’s racism killed his chance on the bench, it certainly didn’t kill his political career, and a decade later, he was elected to the Senate, where he spent the next two decades fighting civil rights progress.
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.
He fought the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings, immigration reform, and criminal justice reform.
Sessions’s opposition to voting rights — which as attorney general he would be in charge of protecting — dates back to his days as U.S. attorney in Alabama, when he wrongly prosecuted a group of black activists for voter fraud. 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.
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.”
Trump, who was endorsed by the KKK, said he would instruct his attorney general to investigate Black Lives Matter. If Sessions gets confirmed, he’ll be the right man to lead that effort.
Even before today’s announcement, Department of Justice insiders were bracing for a radical shift in the department’s work. Under President Obama, the DOJ had its first and second black attorney generals and underwent a massive revamping of the civil rights division, as well as undertaking a series of investigations into abuse and systemic discrimination at 23 police departments. “It’s a scary time coming up,” a former DOJ official told the Huffington Post. Today’s announcement made clear just how scary.
The ACLU — which Sessions accused of being “un-American,” along with the NAACP — said that it has previously criticized Sessions’s positions on LGBT rights, capital punishment, abortion rights, and presidential authority in times of war.
“As the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement official, the attorney general is charged with protecting the rights of all Americans,” ACLU Director Anthony Romero wrote in a statement following the announcement. “In his confirmation hearings, senators, the media, and the American public should closely examine his stances on these key issues to ensure we can have confidence in his ability to uphold the Constitution and our laws on behalf of all Americans.”
“There’s no other way to say it: Jeff Sessions is a racist,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of the racial justice group Color of Change, wrote in a statement. “As attorney general he represents a threat to the legal rights of Black people across the country, and the Black prosecutors and civil servants he will oversee in the Department of Justice.” The American Immigration Council called Sessions “the leading anti-immigration voice in the U.S. Senate.”
“Our question for members of the United States Senate is simple: Do they support racism, or do they not?” Robinson wrote. “In 1986, the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee refused to confirm Sessions to the federal bench. In 2017, the Senate should be just as unequivocal: ‘No’ to racism means ‘no’ to Jeff Sessions.”
By Alice Speri