Trump AG Nominee Jeff Sessions Faces Grilling In Senate Hearing

Sen. Jeff Sessions

By Tal Kopan

WASHINGTON — (CNN) The first major test of President-elect Donald Trump’s administration comes on Tuesday, as Sen. Jeff Sessions faces a grilling from his colleagues in his confirmation hearing to become attorney general.

Sessions’ hearing, which started Tuesday and continues into Wednesday, is expected to be one of the most contentious of any of Trump’s nominees. Democrats are preparing to interrogate Sessions on a number of fronts including his record on race and civil liberties, women’s rights and prosecutorial conduct.

Protesters started interrupting the event before the hearing began. Right as Sessions was walking in, two demonstrators apparently dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan were escorted out of the room.

Still, there’s little likelihood Sessions won’t eventually be confirmed. Republicans hold a majority in the Senate and no GOP senators have spoken out against the’ nomination. Instead, Democrats can only hope to trip Sessions up while making their case to the American people against the Trump administration.

The Alabama senator and former state attorney general has been preparing for his hearing for a month, spending the weekend in his Senate office doing prep work, a source familiar with his preparation says. He’s been holding so-called murder boards — intense sessions without interruptions — since before Christmas.

His comments before the committee are expected to lay out priorities for the Justice Department, including rising crime and addiction rates, combating “radical Islamic terrorism,” and supporting law enforcement, the source said.

This isn’t the first time Sessions has faced the Judiciary panel.

In 1986, Sessions was the second nominee in 50 years to be rejected for a federal judgeship, after confirmation hearings that brought up accusations that Sessions made racist remarks in his past and called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.”

While he continued on to be attorney general of Alabama and serve in the Senate, the record from his confirmation hearings in the ’80s is likely to surface again this week.

Civil rights groups have been pressing Sessions’ record on the issue, calling out not just the statements and actions that came up at those hearings but those he’s made since. As attorney general, Sessions would oversee the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the enforcement of federal civil rights legislation.

“The attorney general should be an attorney general for all the people, but he has a particular responsibility to protect those who are most vulnerable — like immigrants, gays and lesbians, women — and Sen. Sessions has frankly been insensitive to or hostile to all of these groups,” said David Cole, national legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, who will be testifying before the committee on Wednesday, as will the president of the NAACP and a former so-called “Dreamer,” an undocumented immigrant brought to the US as a young child.

Sessions has come under fire for his support of hard-line immigration policies also embraced by Trump, as well as defending Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all foreign Muslims from entering the United States, which the President-elect has since walked back.

Sessions will lay out the case for his nomination in his opening statements, highlighting his pledge to fight crime and secure the border — a key part of his hard-line position on immigration.

He will also address from the beginning his views on civil rights, per prepared remarks.

“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. I have witnessed it,” Sessions will say. He will add: “I know it is essential for police and the communities they serve to have mutual respect.”

Introduced by fellow senators

The transition team says its nominees overall are preparing heavily for the confirmation hearings, which will be Democrats’ first chance to lay markers in their opposition to the Trump administration.

According to incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer, nominees have conducted more than 300 meetings with senators, comprising 87 of the 100 total members, participated in more than 30 practice hearings over 70 hours and answered more than 2,600 questions during mock sessions.

On Tuesday, that preparation will start being put to the test.

Though Sessions has long been a member of the Senate and sat on the Judiciary Committee that will question him, Democrats have made clear they intend to ask him tough questions. And witnesses chosen by the committee minority for Wednesday’s portion of the hearing show they intend to keep the pressure on after he finishes his questions.

To give him some cover, he will be introduced by two fellow GOP senators, fellow Alabaman Sen. Richard Shelby and moderate Maine Sen. Susan Collins.

Collins will note she and Sessions were sworn in on the same day in 1997 and have worked together since, according to prepared remarks shared with CNN.

“It would be fair to say that we have had our share of vigorous debates and policy disagreements,” Collins said. “Through these experiences, I have come to know Sen. Sessions professionally as a trusted colleague and personally as a good friend. I can confidently vouch for the fact that Jeff Sessions is a person of integrity, a principled leader and a dedicated public servant. ”

Shelby said introducing his “friend” would be “an honor.”

“I look forward to discussing his unmatched qualifications for the job as well as his extraordinary character and integrity. I’m confident that he will be confirmed and will serve the American people admirably in this role,” said Shelby in a statement to CNN.

Sen. Tim Scott, the Senate’s sole African-American Republican member, released a statement of support Monday night in advance of the hearing.

“We may not agree on everything, but you would be hard pressed to find a nominee for any post that any Senator is in 100 percent agreement with,” Scott said in a statement. “I have gotten to know Jeff over my four years in the Senate, and have found him to be a consistently fair person. I will continue working for what I believe is in the best interest of my state and my nation, such as criminal justice reform and stopping illegal immigration.”

Opposition from the left

Letters to the committee have targeted Sessions on a variety of issues aside from race, like disabilities and women’s reproductive health. The California Down Syndrome Advocacy Coalition wrote a letter expressing concern about a floor speech Sessions delivered in 2000 in which he called a law that provided for students with disabilities the “single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today” because it did not allow for children with disabilities to be properly disciplined for behavioral problems.

In another letter, a coalition of women’s health and pro-abortion rights groups wrote the committee they were concerned about Sessions’ record opposing abortion rights and also his opposition to federal legislation that would have set up a safety fund for clinics providing abortion services.

Sessions is expected to face questions — and have an opportunity to explain — all these issues as Democrats pepper him with their concerns.

The Congressional Black Caucus, which largely consists of members of the House, also intends to make themselves a presence in the hearings.

Three Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Georgia Rep. John Lewis, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, are scheduled to testify.

Prosecutorial conduct and the Justice Department

Another front of questioning for Sessions is likely to revolve around the duties of the Justice Department.

Sessions has faced questions about prosecutorial misconduct in two prominent cases, both likely to come up in the hearings.

One came up in his 1986 hearings. In the case, Sessions prosecuted three black community activists for voting fraud over their outreach to help voters at the polls, a case he lost. Former Massachusetts Deval Patrick wrote to the committee about the injustice he saw in the case as a member of the defense team at the time.

Another case that will likely come up is a 1997 case in which Sessions’ prosecution as Alabama attorney general of a local company based on a complaint from a competitor. The case was dismissed by a judge who called it one of the worst instances of prosecutorial misconduct his court had witnessed.

Sessions would oversee federal prosecutors as attorney general and serve as the nation’s highest prosecutor.

Crime fighting

Sessions’ role as the nation’s top crime fighter will also play a central focus. Speaking in favor of Grassley will be the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, who will be supportive of Sessions’ track record on police issues, according to FOP Executive Director Jim Pasco. Of particular appeal to the FOP is Sessions’ support of civil asset forfeiture, which police see as a key tool in fighting gang and drug crime — though it is maligned by criminal justice reform advocates.

Sessions will also have advocates in former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and labor law expert Peter Kirsanow.

Grassley will make the case for Sessions, as well, that he will enforce the law fairly, emphasizing Sessions’ long record in the Senate.

“Every member of this committee knows from experience that, in his new role, Sen. Sessions will be a leader for law and order administered without regard to person,” Grassley will saw, according to prepared remarks. “Leadership to that end is exactly what the department now needs.”
But Sessions’ crime record will also face questions from his critics.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, held a conference call with reporters on Monday with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence articulating his concerns about Sessions and gun ownership.

Blumenthal pledged to question Sessions on Tuesday on all of the issues in the forefront — as well as what he would do to combat gun violence in the US.

“I have concerns about the Sessions nomination for a number of reasons, related to his record on civil rights and liberties, women’s rights and health care, religious freedom, but this issue of gun violence really deserves consideration,” Blumenthal said. “My very deep concerns about Sen. Sessions’ record on gun violence prevention is one of the reasons I’m going to be asking tough and pointed questions tomorrow in this hearing.”

Also testifying on Wednesday will be Amita Swadhin, a sexual assault survivor and survivors’ advocate who says she plans to discuss Sessions’ record on “issues that directly affect survivors.”

The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2017 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved. (PHOTO: U.S. Senate/ CNN)

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