01.31.17

Senator Leahy’s Statement In Opposition To The Sessions Nomination For Attorney General, At The Judiciary Committee Voting Session

What we saw last night illustrates what is at stake with this nomination.  The President’s decision to fire Acting Attorney General Sally Yates is shameful.  And his accusation that she “betrayed the Department of Justice” is dangerous.  The Attorney General is the people’s attorney, not the President’s attorney.  He or she does not “wear two hats.”  Ms. Yates exemplified the best of this role.  I want to thank Ms. Yates for her nearly three decades of service to this country, and for serving in the finest traditions of the Justice Department.  She sets a high standard for the Department, and for the Nation.

Despite the President’s strong interest in implementing a Muslim ban, as he promised to do in his campaign, Ms. Yates concluded his immigration executive order was not legally defensible.  This was not a surprising conclusion.  The executive order discriminates by design.  It is wrong and I believe illegal.  Several Federal courts have already found that President Trump’s order is very likely unconstitutional.  But Ms. Yates’ willingness to defend the rule of law instead of defending President Trump’s political whims demonstrates exactly why having an independent Attorney General is so important, and why we must be so careful in selecting our next Attorney General.  President Trump has placed the independence of the Justice Department at stake.  He has put the Department on notice: if you adhere to your oath of office to defend the Constitution, you risk your job.

At this critical time we need an Attorney General who can stand up to the President.  Someone with fidelity to the rule of law and not a political ideology.  Someone who will support the thousands of career prosecutors in the Department who serve our Nation and defend the Constitution without fear or favor.

There is something looming over this nomination that I suspect is on the minds of both Republicans and Democrats.  The fact is we are debating who should be Attorney General in a Trump administration.  This is an administration that needed only one week to find itself on the losing side of an argument in Federal court. This Administration’s unpredictability, recklessness, and extreme agenda cast a shadow over all of the President’s nominees.  That includes Senator Sessions.

I was on this Committee 31 years ago when Jeff Sessions was nominated to a Federal judgeship.  This Committee—on a bipartisan basis—rejected his nomination.  We were not confident that he would be a fair judge.  Today we are considering Senator Sessions for a different role.  He is nominated to be the chief law enforcement officer of the United States.  The Attorney General must be independent and faithfully serve all Americans.  After carefully reviewing Senator Sessions’ extensive record, and his responses to serious questions asked by this Committee, I am not convinced that he meets that threshold standard.  So I must oppose this nomination.

I have serious doubts that Senator Sessions would be an independent Attorney General.  Let me describe a few reasons why.  There have been months of media coverage about President Trump’s many conflicts of interest and the constitutional concerns they present.  Yet Senator Sessions has repeatedly evaded my questions on this topic by claiming that he has “not studied the issue.”  He even refused to acknowledge that it is a conflict of interest for a President to have a personal financial stake in the policies pursued by his administration.  This is the very definition of a conflict of interest: Presidents should not personally profit from their decisions.

Senator Sessions’ willful blindness extends even to the Russian interference in our democracy.  I asked him a series of questions based on the intelligence community’s report on “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.”  Multiple times, he answered my questions by stating, “I have not reviewed the report, but I have no reason not to accept the intelligence community’s conclusion(s) as contained in the report.”  I asked him whether the activities described in the report are illegal and a threat to our democratic process.  That is not a difficult question: the answer should be an obvious “yes.”  If Senator Sessions is not willing even to acknowledge facts that make President Trump uncomfortable, how can we believe that Attorney General Sessions would ever say “no” to President Trump? 

Senator Sessions’ record on civil rights and his lack of independence from President Trump leave me particularly worried that he will fail to protect Americans’ constitutional right to vote.  Nothing is more sacred in our democracy than the right to vote.  Yet Senator Sessions declared it “a good day for the South” when the Shelby County decision was handed down, effectively gutting the Voting Rights Act.  Senator Sessions has consistently sought to undermine the achievements of the Voting Rights Act, as he did in the Perry County case as U.S. Attorney.  The fact that Senator Sessions voted to reauthorize the Act once in 2006 provides little comfort when he turned around and argued it was unconstitutional just after the unanimous Senate vote.

Many Republicans, like Speaker Ryan and Senator Graham, have rightly condemned President Trump’s wild conspiracy theory that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote last November.  I fear this dangerous falsehood will be used as a justification to further attack the hard-won right to vote for racial minorities, students, poor and elderly citizens.  But Senator Sessions has again refused to acknowledge a fundamental and plainly visible fact: the President is wrong.  Instead, he stated in a written response to me last night that he does not know what data the President might have relied upon.  The rest of us know there is no such data, but Senator Sessions refuses to admit as much.

Senator Sessions’ close ties to President Trump, and the important role he has already played in the campaign and the administration, raise important questions about Sessions’ impartiality in matters involving the president.  I asked him several times about scenarios in which he would recuse himself given clear conflicts of interest, but he brushed these questions off, suggesting that he was “merely . . . a supporter of the President’s during the campaign.”  I fear Senator Sessions is selling himself short.  He was widely reported to be a central figure in the Trump campaign, and just yesterday Steve Bannon called him the administration’s “clearinghouse for policy and philosophy.”

This relationship appears to fly in the face of the Justice Department’s recusal standards.  The Department’s standards, which are codified, mandate recusal when the attorney has “a close identification with an elected official . . . arising from service as a principal adviser thereto or a principal official thereof.”  I asked Senator Sessions whether that language would apply to his relationship to President Trump, but he refused to say one way or the other.  Given that the independence of the Justice Department is under siege, I find his lack of a response to this critical question to be unacceptable.

I also have serious concerns about Senator Sessions’ willingness to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.  In 1986, Senator Ted Kennedy called Jeff Sessions a “throwback” because of his conduct on civil rights issues.  Since the Committee’s bipartisan rejection of his first nomination, his record has demonstrated there was reason to be concerned.  Time and again, when the rights of women, LGBT individuals, and disenfranchised communities have been debated here in the Senate, Senator Sessions has not sought to protect their civil and human rights.  Too often, he has been the one standing in the way.

In 2009, Senator Sessions opposed expanding hate crime protections to women and LGBT individuals, groups that have historically been targeted based merely on who they are.  He stated, “I am not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination.  I just don’t see it.”  Thankfully, a bipartisan majority of Senators saw it, and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is now law.  These protections are needed now more than ever.  According to recent FBI statistics, LGBT individuals are more likely to be targeted for hate crimes than any other minority group in the country. 

Senator Sessions also opposed the 2013 Leahy-Crapo VAWA reauthorization legislation, which overwhelmingly passed the Senate with support from a majority of Republican senators.  During his hearing, and again in written questions, Senator Sessions refused to commit to defend this important law’s constitutionality.  He said only that he “will carefully study” it to discern whether it is “reasonably defensible.”  His refusal to voice support for VAWA is all the more troubling in light of reports that the Heritage Foundation’s budget blueprint, which is being relied on by the new administration, calls for eliminating all Violence Against Women Act grants.  I asked Senator Sessions to commit to stand up for women and preserve these critical programs.  Again he refused.  

Amita Swadhin, who appeared before our Committee and bravely shared her story of being raped as a child, explained why this issue is so important: “We need an Attorney General who will continue the progress we have made since the initial passage of VAWA, someone committed to improving and enforcing our laws to ensure the most vulnerable victims of crime can come forward to seek accountability and to access healing.”  This law and these grants are a matter of life and death to many people across the country.  We need an Attorney General who understands that.

Another issue that concerns me is criminal justice reform.  For years I have worked with a bipartisan group of senators on this Committee to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.  These sentences have created perverse disparities within our justice system.  Racial minorities still receive nearly 80 percent of them.  Our bipartisan effort has had the strong support of the Justice Department and many others in law enforcement.  But not Senator Sessions.  In recent years no one in the Senate has fought harder against even modest sentencing reform than he has.

Senator Sessions’ role as a campaign advisor to President Trump only gives me additional cause for concern.  The Washington Post yesterday ran an article calling Senator Sessions the “intellectual godfather” of the President’s hardline policies and executive orders.  The article said, “The directives bore Trump’s name, but another man’s fingerprints were also on nearly all of them: Jeff Sessions.”  Steve Bannon – who has long indulged the worst strains of fear-mongering and even racism – told the reporters that Senator Sessions is “the clearinghouse for policy and philosophy” for the Trump administration. 

Under oath, Senator Sessions denied he was involved in creating the illegal Muslim ban executive order.  I will take him at his word.  But Senator Sessions’ views on this issue should come as no surprise to members of this Committee.  In 2015, I offered a simple resolution that expressed the sense of the Senate that “the United States must not bar individuals from entering into the United States based on their religion.”  All Democrats and most Republicans – including the Chairman – voted in support of my resolution.  Senator Sessions opposed it.  I find that concerning. We need an Attorney General who would stand in the way of religious discrimination, not one who endorses it. 

Now, more than ever, we need an independent Attorney General—one who is committed to standing up for the constitutional and statutory rights of the disenfranchised, and standing up to a President who has already violated those rights.  Unfortunately I do not believe this describes Senator Sessions.  For these reasons, and others that I will detail when we debate this nomination on the Senate floor, I am not confident that Senator Sessions would be an Attorney General for all Americans.  I must oppose this nomination.

Press Contact

Press Contact
David Carle: 202-224-3693