Sen. Lindsey Graham opened his questioning of Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions last week [Jan. 10] by saying that the hearing posed the question whether someone could be confirmed as attorney general despite the opposition of more than 1,000 law professors nationwide. The broader question for the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate, however, is whether a leopard such as Sessions can change his spots when moving from the jungle on Capitol Hill to a Cabinet post.
Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley started the two-day hearing as the first of a succession of Sessions' Republican colleagues to voice confidence in the Alabama senator's ability to enforce the law impartially if confirmed as attorney general. But the committee's ranking Democrat, California's Dianne Feinstein, used her opening to state, without later contradiction, that Sessions "has advocated an extremely conservative agenda" in his 20 years as senator.
Thirty years ago, Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship died at the hands of a Republican-majority Judiciary Committee based on allegations of racial insensitivity or worse as a federal prosecutor. So Sessions may not have been the most obvious choice to head the Justice Department given the department’s continuing indispensable role in enforcing federal civil rights laws.
Sessions’ nomination fits the pattern, however, seen in the selections made by President-elect Trump for other Cabinet positions. Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general tapped to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has made a hobby of sorts out of suing the EPA in league with the pollutant-producing oil and gas industry. Betsy DeVos, the Michigan politico nominated as secretary of education, did not attend nor send her children to public schools but has instead devoted time and money to supporting charter schools as alternatives to public schools. Andy Puzder, the fast food executive designated to be secrtary of labor, would be charged with enforcing laws that his company has been accused of repeatedly violating; his hearing is on hold till next month.
For the all-important position of secretary of state, Trump turned, counterintuitively, to Rex Tillerson, the longtime chief executive of ExxonMobil. Tillerson’s previous diplomatic experience consists of cozying up to petrocratic regimes such as Iran and Vladimir Putin’s Russia for oil-drilling rights.The State Department has a major role in documenting and combating human rights abuses around the world, but Tillerson had no views when asked at his confirmation hearing about human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia, a country surely familiar to him as the world’s leading oil producer.
Pruitt and DeVos are set to face confirmation hearings later this week: DeVos on Tuesday [Jan. 17], Pruitt on Wednesday [Jan. 18]. Democratic senators may have tough questions for each, but with a 52-48 Republican majority in the Senate Trump’s nominees have a certain path to confirmation barring any GOP defections. Tillerson’s confirmation was clouded somewhat by critical questioning during his Foreign Relations Committee hearing from Florida’s Republican senator Marco Rubio and doubts from two other GOP senators, Arizona’s John McCain and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham.
Rubio grilled Tillerson during the Jan. 11 hearing about his longstanding business ties with Russia, which had netted him an “Order of Friendship” award from Putin in 2013. Tillerson declined under repeated questions to characterize Putin as a “war criminal” or to describe Russia as “an adversary.” Tillerson had already raised eyebrows by telling New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez that he had not discussed relations with Russia in his pre-nomination interview with Trump.
One day earlier, Sessions had been closely questioned by several of the Judiciary Committee Democrats but seemingly with no apparent damage done to his all but certain confirmation. Sessions is popular with his colleagues, and senatorial courtesy counts for a lot. Just as important, Sessions repeatedly assured his Republican colleagues and the Democratic skeptics that he would impartially enforce laws even if he disagreed with them as, for example, on the Supreme Court’s decisions on abortion rights and marriage equality for same-sex couples.
Considered more closely, however, Sessions’ record and his answers clearly signal a sharp change in policy at Main Justice after his confirmation. Sessions indicated his support for voter ID laws, which the Obama administration has joined in challenging in federal court. He signaled his intention to support local police departments instead of investigating them for patterns and practices of violating citizens’ civil rights, as the Obama administration has done aggressively in jurisdictions from Ferguson, Mo., to, most recently, Chicago.
On voting rights, Sessions sounded the right notes by acknowledging that the Voting Rights Act “changed the whole course of history,” but he did not retreat from his endorsement of the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 effectively eliminating the act’s most powerful enforcement mechanism. He claimed to have no recollection of his quoted comment doubting the existence of discrimination against women or LGBT individuals.
David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, aptly commented that it is hard to fight against discrimination if one does not believe that it exists. From the opposite perspective, Sessions’ GOP supporters found little to point to in his civil rights record beyond a few Senate resolutions – for example, commending Rosa Parks, the heroine of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Elections have consequences, of course, and Trump won the White House on the promise to shake things up. Still, as the runner-up in the popular vote, Trump along with his Cabinet appointees would be well advised to remember that they preside over a government of laws, laws to be observed and enforced even if the “government of the day” (to use the British phrasing) may have disagreements.