The Senate should reject the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions to be the next attorney general of the United States. He’s manifestly the wrong person to hold that job at this time.
Sessions knows the law, is an experienced federal prosecutor, seems smart and struck me after day one of his confirmation hearing as even-tempered. His early and full-throated support for Donald Trump for president – when no other Senator had dared go there – proves beyond a doubt he has the backbone to take lonely stances.
But he should not be attorney general. Not now, and probably never again. His views mark him as a man of the past, and this country can’t afford to turn back the clock on voting rights, hate crimes, immigration or criminal justice reform.
Some have opposed Sessions’ nomination because they fear he is too close to the new president. I share that concern, especially given the continuing concerns about Trump’s relationship with Russia. But presidents usually pick attorneys general who support them. That’s not new. There’s nothing in Sessions’ record to show he lacks the integrity to stand up to Trump, should he feel he needs to.
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There are many other reasons why Sessions is the wrong choice for attorney general, and unfit to serve in these times. Here are three.
1. His unqualified support for law enforcement is a problem. Every president has supported law enforcement. Anyone this side of organized crime supports the police. They deserve this support many times over.
But the genius of Barack Obama’s handling of the Black Lives Matter movement and all the associated angst tied to a rising awareness that sometimes police officers are the problem, rather than the solution, was that he steadfastly supported the blue while also acknowledging the legitimate rage and fear of many minorities. Every president has supported law enforcement. Anyone this side of organized crime supports the police. They deserve this support many times over.
He did this with style and grace – and fairness. His Dallas speech in July was a powerful, humane and honest tribute to our fallen five police officers. He spoke at length about each officer’s commitment to this community, and grieved with us over their loss. He called their murderer a vicious and demented racist.
But he also said minorities’ fears of the police must be listened to.
“When African-Americans from all walks of life, from different communities across the country, voice a growing despair over what they perceive to be unequal treatment … We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism. To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and co-workers and fellow church members, again and again and again, it hurts. Surely we can see that, all of us.”
Sessions stressed again and again during his hearing that he’d back the blue, and called out politicians whom he said have unfairly tarnished the police by giving credence to protesters. That misses the point, of course, that the bad actions of some police are what have tarnished officers’ reputations.
He later said that sometimes officers “make mistakes” – a strange way to characterize fatal interactions like the one that saw Eric Garner choked to death on a New York sidewalk under the care of police there.
Trump’s attorney general, whether it’s Sessions or not, will not be a devotee of Obama’s approach. Trump has promised law-and-order, and he apparently means to deliver. But Jeff Sessions would turn the page and march straight back to a time when fear is denied and allowed to fester into rage and despair, until as James Baldwin once wrote about a dream deferred, it explodes.
2. Sessions supported the use of torture. As a senator, Sessions voted against a bill that outlawed waterboarding and other interrogation techniques by intelligence agencies, a bill that passed overwhelmingly in both chambers and is now law. He assured senators on the committee Tuesday that as attorney general he’d follow the law, no matter how he voted.
I take him at his word on this. But it is not enough. A man who fights to protect the government’s right to use torture in its interrogations – despite widespread and public acknowledgment from both the military and our intelligence community that these tactics produce bad intelligence, and have not been helpful in our fight against terror – is not a man who should be this country’s top law enforcement official.
3. Sessions has weakened voting rights. He criticized the Voting Rights Act, even when voting to reauthorize it in 2006. When the Supreme Court struck down its Section 4, the portion that required some states to submit redistricting maps and similar voting rules to the Justice Department for pre clearance, he cheered. More importantly, and why it matters so much now, he has refused to support an update to the law that would adopt a more modern method for determining which states’ rules are subject to pre-clearance and which aren’t. That would solve the constitutional defect identified by Chief Justice John Roberts in 2013, but Sessions has steadfastly opposed it.
Sessions said often on Tuesday that it’s easier to take a stance on issues as a senator, or in the midst of a presidential campaign, than to adopt it as official policy as the attorney general. True that.
But as attorney general, he'll have wide discretion – judgment – about what priorities to set, and where to marshal the department’s resources. Where his heart is, matters. And from what we can tell from 20 years of Senate votes, statements and positions it’s not in the right place. Not for 2017. Not for America.
The Dallas Morning News