Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) became the first sitting US senator in history to testify against a fellow senator’s cabinet confirmation when he delivered an impassioned plea to lawmakers to reject Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-AL) attorney general nomination.
Booker, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) also testified against President-elect Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee on Wednesday. Lewis, who fought for civil rights alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, said he worried that Sessions, if confirmed, would “violate the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed [and] people of color.”
Acknowledging the “exceptional” nature of his testimony against a fellow senator, Booker questioned whether the nominee would protect the rights of all Americans. “America was founded heralding not law and order but justice for all, and critical to that is equal justice under the law,” Booker said. “If there is no justice, there is no peace.”
“Senator Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment… to aggressively pursue… civil rights, equal rights and justice for all our citizens,” Booker continued. “Numerous times in his career he has demonstrated a hostility toward these convictions and has worked to frustrate attempts to advance these ideals.”
“The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve toward justice, we must bend it,” Booker added. “America needs an attorney general who is resolute and determined to bend the arc. Sen. Sessions’ record does not speak to that desire, intention or will… The next attorney general must bring hope and healing to this country and this demands a more courageous empathy than Senator Sessions’ record demonstrates.”
On Tuesday, Sessions faced more than nine hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He denied being a racist and distanced himself from some of Trump’s most controversial campaign promises, including banning Muslims from entering the United States and torturing suspected terrorists. Sessions was repeatedly interrupted by protesters, some of whom were dressed in white robes similar to those worn by the Ku Klux Klan. Demonstrators chanted “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” before being removed, sometimes roughly, from the hearing.
Critics point to Sessions’ decades-long history of opposing civil rights legislation, court rulings and policies, as well as his history of racist, homophobic and Islamophobic remarks, as reasons to reject his nomination. The former Alabama attorney general and US attorney has opposed the Voting Rights Act, which he called “intrusive,” and is a staunch supporter of voter ID laws, which Republicans have admitted are used to disenfranchise blacks. He wrongfully prosecuted civil rights activists who were registering blacks to vote. He opposes women’s constitutional right to abortion, voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, twice voted against the Military Justice Improvement Act, a measure to combat the surging epidemic of rape in the US military, and opined that Donald Trump’s boast about grabbing women “by the pussy” did not constitute a description of sexual assault. Sessions has also opposed legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and has vociferously called for a repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship to anyone born in the United States. He has been consistently against granting civil rights to LGBTQ people and called same-sex marriage a threat to American culture. He has been criticized for opposing laws and treaties to protect the rights of people with disabilities.
“People have to remember that the attorney general is really the chief protector and enforcer of all of our nation’s civil rights laws, including the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and a host of very important civil rights legislation,” Kyle Barry, policy counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund, told Democracy Now! “And in Jeff Sessions, you have someone who has spent over 40 years of his political and legal career opposing civil rights and opposing principles of equality.”
Barry points to Session’ opposition to sentencing reform — opposition which perpetuates the mass incarceration of mostly poor people of color — as well as his backing of mandatory minimum sentencing and support for prison chain gangs as examples of the nominee’s “extraordinary racial insensitivity.” David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), agrees, telling Democracy Now! that Sessions’ vote against lifting felon disenfranchisement and his support for voter ID laws are proof he is not fit to serve as attorney general. Cole also noted Sessions’ Islamophobia — the Christian senator once called Islam, the world’s second-largest religion, a “toxic ideology” and has backed Donald Trump’s plan to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. However, during his confirmation hearing Sessions insisted he would reject such a ban.
Sessions has called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American” and “communist-inspired.”
The many Sessions statements called racist by critics include reportedly saying he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot” — which Sessions admits saying but claims he was joking, allegedly repeatedly calling black attorneys racial slurs and allegedly calling a white attorney who defended blacks in civil rights cases a “disgrace to his race.”
Critics also note that in 1986, the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee deemed Sessions too racist to serve as a federal judge. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) called Sessions “a throwback to a shameful era” in rejecting his nomination. In a letter written at the time, Coretta Scott King, widow of assassinated civil rights champion Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., asserted Sessions “would have a devastating effect not only on the judicial system… but also on the progress we have made… toward fulfilling my husband’s dream.”
Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said racism is “not just about a white supremacist yelling the N-word or wearing robes or burning crosses.”
“Racism is perpetrated through systems of power that consistently privilege white people while discriminating against people of color and other Americans,” Barber told Democracy Now! Barber, who also leads the Moral Mondays anti-racism protests in North Carolina, said he was particularly alarmed by Sessions’ disdain for the Voting Rights Act. “That is legislation that people died for,” he said, referring to the many civil rights activists murdered during the 1950s and 1960s.
Others are alarmed by Session’s anti-LGBTQ statements and actions, which include support for discriminatory and unconstitutional anti-sodomy laws, advocacy for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, opposition to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, support for the military’s repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for LGBTQ service members and other discriminatory laws and policies. In voting against hate crime protection for women and LGBTQ people, Sessions said, “I’m not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination. I just don’t see it.”
“Now he’s going to be put in charge of enforcing the hate crimes law,” Cole told Democracy Now! “If you can’t see discrimination, you’re not going to do a very good job enforcing the laws against discrimination.”
Still others said Sessions’ questionable ethical record should preclude him from serving as attorney general. He failed to hand over scores of documents requested by the Senate Judiciary Committee — an act he once called a felony— and failed to disclose he was rejected for federal judgeship in 1986. He also critically failed to disclose his ownership of Alabama oil interests, and he worked with campaign contributor US Steel to prosecute one of the company’s competitors in a case dismissed by a judge who called it the worst case of prosecutorial misconduct he’d ever seen.
Undaunted, Sessions’ supporters rallied to his defense. “Jeff is principled, forthright, and hardworking,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said after his nomination. “He cares deeply about his country and the department he will be nominated to lead.”
“I have never witnessed anything to suggest that Senator Sessions is anything but a dedicated public servant and decent man,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) added.
During his confirmation hearing, Sessions insisted he “abhors” the “hateful ideology” of the KKK and said he was keenly aware of the importance of civil rights in America. “I deeply understand the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African American brothers and sisters,” he said. “I have witnessed it. We must continue to move forward and never back. I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by our LGBT community. I will ensure that the statutes protecting their civil rights and their safety are full enforced. I understand the lifelong scars born by women who are victims of assault and abuse.”
Progressive lawmakers were not convinced. “I see in Jeff Sessions a man who wants black people to be quiet, immigrants to be silent and invisible, women back in the kitchen and gays in the closet,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) told Democracy Now! “So, if that’s the America you want to make great again, then Jeff Sessions is your guy.”
Sessions will likely be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.