It’s a make-or-break week for several of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees. While his picks for many of the administration’s key positions face confirmation hearings in the Senate, no proceeding is expected to be as contentious as the one for Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator chosen by Trump to lead the Department of Justice.
A former federal prosecutor and state attorney general in Alabama, the 70-year-old Sessions is a staunch conservative who already failed to pass a Senate confirmation process once before in his career — in 1986 when he was rejected for federal judgeship over allegations of racism.
Sessions said he was a “babe in the woods” during the 1986 hearings, and this time around, he is steeling himself for a grilling by his colleagues on the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee. In a questionnaire he prepared for the hearings, Sessions already tried to neutralize criticism of his civil rights record, and he and other nominees have reportedly spent more than 70 hours preparing with mock hearings.
Sessions has other things working in his favor as well: He faces only two days of questioning. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the last senator to become attorney general, was subjected to four days of hearings when he joined George W. Bush’s cabinet. And only nine outside witness will be allowed to testify before the committee, compared to 19 who spoke during Ashcroft’s hearing. Since Sessions is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, familiar colleagues will be the ones asking him questions.
Unless several Republicans turn against Sessions, Democrats simply don’t have the numbers to block his confirmation. Barring a bombshell revelation during the hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sessions will probably be the next attorney general. But Sessions still holds controversial views on many topics, and any slip of the tongue when discussing them could be a game changer.
Here’s what to watch for:
When the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee snubbed Sessions in 1986, he was the second nominee in 49 years to be rejected for a federal judgeship. One of the main issues then involved a case where Sessions was accused of suppressing black votes as Alabama’s attorney general. Outside that case, Sessions was also accused of referring to an African-American colleague as “boy” and calling the NAACP and other civil rights groups “un-American.”
The decades-old allegations won’t be enough to sink Sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday, but he will be forced to address the issue. The ACLU, whose national legal coordinator plans to testify during the hearings, has said Sessions’ record “raises significant, serious questions about his hostility to civil rights and civil liberties.” Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, are also expected to testify against Sessions, who will likely reverse many of the reforms enacted by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under the Obama administration.
Sessions, however, has already gone on the offensive, recruiting black colleagues to speak on his behalf and listing on a pre-hearing questionnaire several civil rights he “personally handled” as prosecutor, including four voting rights cases and one regarding school desegregation. Justice Department officials, however, said his involvement in the cases was “minimal” in reality.
The defining issue of Sessions’ career in the Senate has been his ultra-hard-line stance on immigration, and as attorney general, he would wield tremendous power over immigration enforcement. Sessions has repeatedly torpedoed legislation to grant undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, claimed that immigrants are taking jobs from Americans, and, like Trump, called for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
While his stonewalling of comprehensive immigration reform won Sessions few friends on either side of the aisle in the Senate, it’s unlikely that any of those grudges will lead his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote against him. Sessions holds some extreme positions — like questioning whether the 14th Amendment guarantees children born in the U.S. the right to citizenship. But Trump won the presidency, in part, because of his polarizing views on immigration, and Sessions’ far-right positions might work in his favor in the current political climate.
As attorney general, Sessions would oversee the DEA and direct federal prosecutors across the country. That gives him broad discretion over U.S. drug policy, which could be bad news for supporters of marijuana legalization.
Sessions remarked during a Senate hearing in April that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He also said, “We need grown-ups in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it is in fact a very real danger.”
Legal weed won big in the November election, with four states voting to legalize the drug for recreational use. Polls show that the majority of Americans, including many Republicans, now favor ending marijuana prohibition. The growing consensus could lead to some interesting questions during the confirmation hearing, with senators potentially asking Sessions whether he would respect state decisions on legalization, as Trump has indicated he’ll do.
In a move to rally its members over the past week, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the pro-legalization marijuana group, has urged people to call their senators and tell them to confront Sessions about his “good people don’t smoke marijuana” comment.
“If he truly believes such an outrageous claim,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said, “he should not be the next attorney general.”
Sessions has said that same-sex marriage threatens American culture and previously fought to deny funding for LGBT student groups. He accused the Supreme Court of unconstitutional “overreach” for upholding the right to marriage equality and vehemently opposed the Matthew Shepard Act of 2009, which allows federal authorities to prosecute anti-gay hate crimes even when local authorities refuse.
If confirmed, Sessions would lead the DOJ’s civil rights division and could reverse many of the Obama administration’s policies on LGBT equality. Given that many Republicans share his socially conservative views, he probably won’t shy away from his positions under questioning.