While Jeff Sessions likely will be confirmed as President-elect Donald Trump's attorney general, Democrats and progressive allies are preparing to cast the Alabama Republican senator during confirmation hearings this week as a racist, sexist and homophobe who will set back justice in the United States.
Amid the praise of many black leaders who know him, his critics cite only offhand comments, such as a joking reference to the Ku Klux Klan, and the prosecution of a 1985 voting-fraud indictment of black defendants in Perry County, Alabama, who were accused of intimidating black voters. As the Washington Times noted in an editorial, "It was a case of black vs. black."
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Two days of confirmation hearings begin Tuesday for Sessions, who has held his Senate seat since 1997, served as the state’s attorney general and as a U.S. attorney. Only 50 votes will be needed for the Republican-majority Senate to confirm Trump's picks, though a single senator could slow the process and thwart the new administration's goal of confirming as many as seven nominees by Inauguration Day.
Five nominees will testify before the Senate this week: Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state; Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., for head of the CIA; Elaine Chao for transportation secretary; and retired Marine Gen. James Mattis for defense secretary.
Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, has vowed a “season of civil disobedience,” declaring Sessions' nomination "an affront to everything the civil rights and voting rights community has stood for historically, and a vote for Sessions should be held accountable and punishable by the voters."
But Monday morning a group of black pastors from Alabama held a press conference at the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill to endorse Sessions.
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"Americans are living in a toxic climate where the serious charge of racism is carelessly leveled against anyone with whom the left disagrees," said Rev. Dean Nelson, director of African-American Outreach for Family Research Council's Watchmen on the Wall. "We are here today to make it perfectly clear that this attack against Senator Jeff Sessions is baseless, and that he is more than qualified to be our next attorney general."
Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner Jr., the son of defendants in the 1985 case, this week endorsed Sessions.
“I have known Senator Sessions for many years, beginning with the voter fraud case in Perry County in which my parents were defendants," he said, according to the Washington Times.
"My differences in policy and ideology with him do not translate to personal malice. He is not a racist. As I have said before, at no time then or now has Jeff Sessions said anything derogatory about my family."
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Artur Davis, a former congressman who represented Alabama's 7th District, which includes Perry County, explained in an interview four years ago with the Montgomery Advertiser that Sessions, as the U.S. attorney, was trying to correct abuse of the black vote.
Sessions also has the backing of President Obama’s former surgeon general and the Democratic leader in the Alabama state Senate, both of whom are black.
William Smith, the former chief counsel for Sessions on the Senate Judiciary and Budget Committees, who is black, said his interactions with Sessions over more than a dozen years have been only positive.
“When I would go over to talk to him late in the afternoon about upcoming legislation, he might spend more time with me talking about my personal life to make sure my life was going well, because he simply cared about how I was doing,” Smith said, according to PBS.
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Smith said people who have not spent much time with Sessions should not judge his character.
“What’s been left out of [the] national conversation is that everyone bringing up attacks against him don’t know him,” Smith said. “They don’t like his policy points of view, but he’s not a racist.”
Trump, when Sessions was introduced in November as his AG nominee, called the senator a "world-class legal mind and considered a truly great attorney general and U.S. attorney in the state of Alabama."
“Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him," Trump said.
'Make them understand'
Sharpton, meanwhile, said a march in Washington, D.C., has been planned for Jan. 14 during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend to protest the Sessions nomination, PJ Media reported.
“We’re not just doing this to be doing it. We do it because it can lead to change and, believe me, there will be a season of civil disobedience particularly around the Sessions nomination,” he said Friday on a conference call with other civil rights organizations’ leaders such as Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, and Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.
Sharpton said activists will visit senators’ offices and make house calls to “make them understand” they will be held accountable for voting in favor of Sessions.
“Make them understand that if they think they are voting based on some courtesy of a Senate colleague and will not face a real backlash in their own states, then they have another thing coming. This is not going to be some regular ceremonial procedure that they’re going to be able to bluff their way through,” he said.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said: “The question is what in his record over 40 years suggests that we can trust him to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws, and the onus is on Sen. Sessions to prove, in light of that record, that he is fit for this position."
The controversial Southern Poverty Law Center, which has cast Dr. Ben Carson as an extremist for his traditional view of marriage and family, called Sessions a “champion of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant extremists.”
NAACP President Cornell Brooks was among six people arrested during a sit-in protest in Sessions’ Mobile, Alabama, office last week
PBS reported more than 1,200 faculty members, from 176 law schools in 49 states, signed a letter opposing Sessions’ candidacy because of his stance on "mass incarceration," climate change, women, the LGBTQ community, immigration and civil rights.
The faculty members cited Sessions’ 1986 confirmation hearings for an appointment to a federal judgeship by President Reagan in which civil rights attorney Gerry Hebert testified that Sessions called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American” and “communist-inspired.”
Politico reported Democratic Party senators, meanwhile, are pushing to let Congressional Black Caucus members testify at the confirmation hearing.
Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond, D-La., will raise concerns about Sessions' record with "communities of color,” a source said.
Also testifying will be Oscar Vasquez, a U.S. veteran and beneficiary of President Obama's DREAM Act, which provided permanent residence status to millions of children of illegal aliens. Sessions opposes a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens.
CNN reported the mother of Matthew Shepard, the homosexual college student who was fatally beaten in Wyoming in 1998, is urging senators to oppose Sessions' nomination because of his opposition to hate-crimes legislation.
Judy Shepard, in a report issued by the Human Rights Campaign, blasted Sessions for opposing the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which Obama signed into law in 2009.
She said Sessions "has forfeited opportunity after opportunity to stand up for people like my son Matt and has, instead, used his position of power to target them for increased discrimination and marginalization, thus encouraging violence and other acts deemed to be hate crimes."
A Sessions spokeswoman told CNN he would enforce hate crimes laws as attorney general even though he opposed them in the Senate over constitutional concerns.
A source told CNN that Sessions was concerned that vague terms in the law could have allowed re-prosecution of people who had been acquitted.
"Senator Sessions believes that all Americans, no matter their background, deserve effective protection from violence and that crimes committed on the basis of prejudice are unquestionably repugnant," said Sarah Isgur Flores, a Sessions spokeswoman. "While he may have had disagreements about what was the most effective policy to combat such crimes, as attorney general, he will be fully committed to enforcing the laws – even those for which he did not vote."
Doubt has been cast on the prevailing narrative that developed after Shepard's death. As WND reported, a book by an accomplished, openly gay journalist published in 2013 presented documentary evidence that the murder of Matthew Shepard had nothing to do with hatred of homosexuals. It was so convincing that the Advocate, which calls itself the “world’s leading source for LGBT news and entertainment,” published a positive review of the book titled “Have We Got Matthew Shepard All Wrong?”
Julia Ioffe, a contributing writer for the Huffington Post, tried to bring in the views of Sessions' father to cast the senator as a racist, tweeting above a clipping from an old news article: "In 1985, Jeff Sessions' father told the Montgomery Advertiser that he believes in the separation of the races."
The Hill reported police and law enforcement officials are backing Sessions as someone who will bring a "police-first" mentality to the Justice Department that they say was missing under President Obama.
Sessions is backed by the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union; the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association; the National Association of Police Organizations; and the National Sheriffs Association.
“We have about a 20-year relationship with Jeff Sessions from his time in the Senate on the Judiciary Committee and our members in Alabama who worked with him, both as state attorney general and a U.S. attorney, and the best way to sum it up is that we don’t have anything bad to say about Jeff Sessions,” FOP executive director Jim Pasco told the Hill newspaper.
“He has extraordinary insight into the demands and stresses of a police officer’s life and also has a real reverence for the rule of law. It sounds corny but it’s true, and that’s what our members pray for in a prosecutor.”
Obama’s attorneys general, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, focused on investigating police practices in minority communities such as Ferguson, Missouri, reinforcing a narrative by activists such as Black Lives Matters that police are intentionally targeting young black men.
“Sessions presumes that law enforcement officials in the main are good folks,” said Bill Barr, an attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. “He’s not going to be afraid to go after rogue cops. But he’s also not looking to undermine police authority and effectiveness because he doesn’t work from the assumption that the police are inherently bad. That will be a break from the Obama years.”
Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said Sessions "will play a pivotal role in restoring confidence and credibility to a badly damaged, scandal-ridden Justice Department."
"The American people deserve an attorney general and a Justice Department centered on upholding the Constitution and the rule of law," he said. "That is exactly what Senator Sessions will do."
Sekulow said Sessions' "long track record of working across lines – be they political, racial, or socioeconomic lines – is exemplary."
Charging Republicans are rushing to confirm Trump's nominees without proper vetting, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is using Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's own words against him, the Hill reported.
Schumer sent the Kentucky Republican his own 2009 letter – to then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – outlining nomination requirements, crossing out McConnell's signature and writing in his own.
McConnell has pledged that no nominee would get a full Senate vote before all of their paperwork has been submitted, the Hill said.