During his last set of confirmation hearings, before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions lost out on an appointment to the federal bench.
Witnesses testified that the Alabama Republican had called major civil rights organizations “un-American,” used racially insensitive language with associates and even said pot-smoking was the only reason he no longer thought the KKK was OK. His nomination was withdrawn after two fellow Republicans crossed the partisan divide on the panel to disapprove of his confirmation.
Sessions ran for the Senate a decade later and won, affirmed by Alabama voters who thought Washington had run amok. Now, Sessions, a partially reconstructed baiter of minorities, is in the mix for a Cabinet appointment. The talk of him taking over as attorney general, the person responsible for the protection of civil rights, has subsided in recent days. But he still appears to be a leading contender to run the Defense Department or the Homeland Security Department.
Much as his colleagues may be loath to keep him in their chamber — he has frustrated both Democrats and Republicans with his refusal to consent to votes on popular legislation over the course of his career — the Senate should reject him for any post that requires confirmation. He is beyond the ideological fringe, and his service in the Trump administration would be a disservice to the country.
Recall that the military was the first major American institution to integrate, under the order of Harry Truman. Surely, Sessions wouldn’t try to resegregate American armed forces, in which he served, but his ascent to the top civilian defense job would send a terrible message to people of color who wish to protect their country.
The people of Alabama have a right to elect whomever they want to the Senate; but the Senate has a responsibility to prevent the federal government from becoming a haven for white nationalists and their friends. Sessions is a favorite of Stormfront, the white-nationalist web community founded by former Klansman Don Black. His confirmation would reinforce Trump’s appointment of white nationalist Steve Bannon to the top strategist’s role at the White House.
Sessions has been normalized by his two decades of service in the Senate (such an outsider!), but his views are more than a little bit outside the mainstream. Just in the last several years, he opposed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, efforts to remove the Confederate battle flag from display on state property, and the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law. On the latter, he said gay servicemembers would have a “corrosive” effect on morale.
He has repeatedly voted against defense authorization bills — the legislation setting policy for the U.S. armed services — because he has disagreed with policies like the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and a hate-crimes rider.
Over the years, Sessions has learned the lesson taught by his first confirmation — to mask his contempt for racial, ethnic and sexual minorities.
For example, his opposition to bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform legislation is couched in concern for American citizens losing out on jobs to undocumented workers.
“Why would any member of Congress want to vote for a bill at a time of high unemployment, falling wages, to bring in a huge surge of new labor that can only hurt the poorest among us,” he said on “Face the Nation” in 2013. Well, the national unemployment rate is currently below 5 percent. In the fourth quarter of 2015, according to the Economic Policy Institute, Alabama’s white unemployment rate was 4.1 percent — or essentially, full employment. What’s Sessions really worried about? It’s not Hispanic immigrants taking jobs from Alabamians.
It’s clear that Sessions is unfit for the post of attorney general, where nonwhites would have good reason to fear that he would actively or passively defang the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. But Americans should also expect that their Defense and Homeland Security secretaries respect basic American concepts of equality and justice. How can Sessions effectively lead departments where minorities and LGBT Americans work?
On deportation, Sessions is actually far more hawkish than Trump. He complained a few years ago that only undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes other than those involving their mere presence in the U.S. were being deported. That is Trump’s current policy — unless Trump is playing word games.
“The federal government has reached a point now where virtually no one is being deported except those being convicted of serious crimes,” he said in 2013. It’s hard to be more radical than Trump on combating illegal immigration, but Sessions is there. More important, he’s exhibited little humanity when talking about children of undocumented immigrants.
Here’s what he said to the Washington Examiner after the administration announced it was considering placing 2,000 undocumented children in Alabama:
“What’s happening in Alabama is happening this around the country and it is the result of idiotic policy cannot never work, that’s encouraging more people to come illegally, and then we treat them, we house them, we feed them for months, and we release them basically on bail and then they just go where they wanted to go to begin with.”
Remember, these are children Sessions is talking about. Perhaps he would do to well to remember the verse from Leviticus that admonishes people to treat foreigners as they would treat themselves.
But, if Sessions is nominated for a Cabinet post, senators should keep in mind what he said during Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing: “I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for, anyone who will not render justice impartially.”
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.