In a move that’s likely to drain many Americans’ reserves of profanity, Donald Trump has chosen Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to be the next Attorney General of the United States. Ah well — Civil Rights had a nice run, and they may come back into vogue again someday. But if Sessions is confirmed by the Senate, we’ll have as the nation’s top law enforcer a man who was deemed (by Republicans!) too racist to be a federal judge in 1986, who played a key role in killing immigration reform — twice — and who for that matter thinks we need to cut back on legal immigration as well. Oh, and he’s a climate change denier, to boot.
Sessions got the nomination the old-fashioned way: by toadying to Trump. He was the only senator to endorse Trump during the Republican primaries, and members of his staff have worked on the Trump campaign as well. Sessions, probably the most hardcore anti-immigration member of the Senate, also helped write the Trump campaign’s “immigration policy,” such as it was, including a fanciful plan (that’s never going to work) for making Mexico pay for the wall.
Yr Editrix’s first thought on hearing Sessions had been nominated for A.G.: OH WE LIVE IN DYSTOPIA NOW WELCOME TO THE FUTURE HOORAY. She says she woke up really quickly when she heard the news.
So just how far to the right is our nation’s Department of Justice about to swing? Mother Jones offers a few notes:
- When Tucker Carlson met him in 2014 during one of Sessions’s endless fights on immigration, Carlson came away calling him a “nationalist,” although that’s not necessarily a bad thing in Daily Caller Land.
- Sessions renamed a Senate subcommittee he was chosen to chair the “Immigration and the National Interest” subcommittee, because he wanted “the American People” to know “this subcommittee belongs to them,” rather than to the “financial and political elite.” That’s a hell of a lot riding on one committee name.
- He’s opposed every possible variation on immigration reform, and when the Senate finally passed a comprehensive reform bill in 2013, Sessions made it his business to kill the bill in the House. He distributed to House members a 23-page handbook chock-full of anti-reform talking points, starting with this blunt instrument of a paragraph:
“Immigration reform” may be the single most abused phrase in the English language. It has become a legislative honorific almost exclusively reserved for proposals which benefit everyone but actual American citizens.
And from there, it got a bit extreme sounding. Sessions probably did more than any one else to whip up rightwing opposition to the bill, which almost certainly would have passed if it had been introduced in the House, but John “Chickenshit” Boehner never brought it up.
- Thanks to Sessions’s loyalty to Trump — including saving his transition team’s bacon once the campaign was surprised by actually having to put together a transition — the Trump administration is going to be shot through with Sessions staffers in key posts. Sessions’s top aide, Stephen Miller, who helped draft that immigration policy, is being considered for several posts; if he could be cloned, he might fill all of them. Rick Dearborn, Sessions’s former chief of staff, may become director of the White House’s Office of Legislative Affairs. A chief counsel for Sessions on the Judiciary Committee, Danielle Cutrona, gets a really cool job title in the transition: she’s in charge of “Immigration Reform & Building the Wall.” And the transition effort for Homeland Security (home of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol) is being led by Cindy Hayden, who helped Sessions kill a 2007 immigration reform bill. Or as Sessions put it, she gets a lot of the credit for “stomping that bill to death.”
And then there’s all the racism stuff, which isn’t exactly ancient history, but will be downplayed as mere whining over “political correctness.” When Sessions was appointed to a federal judgeship by Ronald Reagan in 1986, his confirmation hearings turned up all sorts of charming stuff: A Justice Department official, J. Gerald Hebert, testified Sessions had called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American groups” that were “Communist-inspired.” Sessions also had complained the groups had “forced civil rights down the throats of people.” (History fans take note: this may be one of the earliest sightings in the wild of the “forced down our throats” trope, even leaving aside the ugly notion that Americans’ rights are some sort of nasty thing that have to be tolerated by normal white folks.) In the hearings, Sessions “clarified” that when he called the ACLU and NAACP “un-American,” he only meant they “involve themselves in promoting un-American positions” in foreign policy, so that was perfectly OK. Hebert also said Sessions had called a white civil rights attorney a “disgrace to his race” for taking voting rights cases, which Sessions claimed was only a joke, jeez, can’t you people take a little irony?
Sessions liked jokes like that a lot! Thomas Figures, a black former assistant US Attorney from Alabama, testified that during a 1981 murder investigation involving members of the KKK, Sessions
was heard by several colleagues commenting that he “used to think they [the Klan] were OK” until he found out some of them were “pot smokers.” Sessions claimed the comment was clearly said in jest.
Figures said it didn’t sound like a joke to him, and also testified Sessions had called him “boy,” and warned him to “be careful what you say to white folks” after Sessions overheard Figures criticize a white secretary’s performance. Figures backed up Hebert’s testimony that Sessions had called any number of civil rights groups “un-American,” including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Council of Churches. For his part, Sessions denied he’d said those things to Figures, but did admit sometimes his sense of humor was a little off-color. But a racist? Noever! Why, his children went to integrated schools, and he’d even shared a hotel room with a black lawyer, so there! The Senate Judiciary Committee voted eight to ten not to advance Sessions’s nomination to the full Senate — and this was in a Republican-controlled Senate. Today, those guys would probably be called RINOs.
Oh, one more fun detail: a year before Reagan nominated Sessions to that failed bid for the federal judiciary, Sessions had tried and failed to prosecute three civil rights workers, one of them a former aide to Martin Luther King, on voter fraud charges, because they had worked to register black voters. Focusing only on three majority-black counties in Alabama, Sessions managed to turn up 14 allegedly tampered-with absentee ballots, out of 1.7 million cast in the 1984 election. The jury acquitted the three civil rights workers after four hours of deliberation.
Oh, but surely after he was elected to the Senate in 1996, Sessions has been a lot better, hasn’t he? Maybe not so much. The NAACP has consistently given him “F” ratings, but only because the scale doesn’t go any lower. He attempted and failed to ban affirmative action in the federal government, opposed hate-crimes legislation, and even tried to block an investigation of the disproportionate number of minorities sent to juvenile detention facilities. In 2002, then-director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau Hillary Shelton said his “voting record is disturbing. … He has consistently opposed the bread-and-butter civil rights agenda.” He also defended judicial nominees with seriously awful records, according to the New Republic, including
such dubious nominees as Charles Pickering, who in 1959 wrote a paper defending Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation law, and Judge Dennis Shedd, who dismissed nearly every fair-employment civil rights case brought before him as a federal district court judge. Sessions called Pickering “a leader for racial harmony” and a “courageous,” “quality individual” who was being used as a “political pawn.” Regarding Shedd, he pooh-poohed the criticism, announcing that the judge “should have been commended for the rulings he has made,” not chastised.
Oh, yeah, and the climate denier thing, because why not:
Here’s Sessions in a 2015 hearing questioning Environmental Protection Agency’s Gina McCarthy: “Carbon pollution is CO2, and that’s really not a pollutant; that’s a plant food, and it doesn’t harm anybody except that it might include temperature increases.”
So, there’s your next attorney general, kids, and the person who’ll set the agenda for trivial things like equal employment enforcement and the enforcement of voting rights. Say goodbye to any federal challenges to state efforts to suppress minority voting! Now, we should point out here that the attorney general does require Senate confirmation, and that there is a slim enough Republican majority in the Senate that it would only take a few votes to block Sessions. This is where you pick up the phone or hit your email or both and contact your senator to say “Hi, this is your constituent Insert Name Here from Insert Town or City Here, calling about Jeff Sessions this time. … NOOOOOOO PLEASE, GOD NOOOOOO!!!” You may want to work on the phrasing. And it’s an even greater incentive to send a few dollars to help Louisiana’s Foster Campbell, who is trying to make it into the Senate, which would mean only a one-vote Senate majority for the R’s.
Post-apocalyptic visions of America are fun to read. But let’s do our damnedest to keep them fictional, OK?