Leahy decides: No on Trump Attorney General pick
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will oppose the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general of the United States.
“There’s no way I can support him,” Leahy said in an interview Sunday. “I try to give every president’s nominee the benefit of the doubt. I’ve had nominees of Republican and Democrat presidents where I’ve had areas of disagreement — and I don’t expect them to be in lockstep with me on everything. But on certain core constitutional principles, then I really do care.”
“After giving Sessions the benefit of the doubt,” Leahy added, “there’s too much doubt.”
Leahy is the sole remaining senator who voted against Sessions’ 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship. At the time, Sessions was plagued by accusations of racism, and the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee swiftly rejected the young Alabama attorney.
More than 30 years later, the Vermont senator said he pored over hundreds of pages of the nominee’s past statements and policies looking to answer a fundamental question: “Has he changed?”
After two days of heated confirmation hearings and dozens of supplemental questions, Leahy charged that Sessions had not, in fact, demonstrated a fundamental shift in ideology since his initial rejection by the Senate committee three decades ago.
Sessions’ nomination is still awaiting a recommendation from the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Leahy is the most senior member.
While Leahy said he was concerned about “the totality” of Sessions’ career, he said he was particularly troubled by Sessions’ reluctance to pursue potential Justice Department investigations of President Donald Trump on a range of matters, from his myriad business entanglements across the globe to allegations of fraud at Trump University.
“He’s supposed to be the chief law enforcement officer, but he talks like he’s going to be Trump’s personal attorney,” Leahy said. “He’s supposed to be the attorney for all of us.”
In his more than 40 years in the Senate, Leahy has consistently supported Democratic nominees for attorney general. But he has no recorded roll call votes in support of a Republican nominee for the post.
Some Republican picks — such as Reagan nominee William Barr — won confirmation by the full Senate on a bipartisan basis by voice vote. But others saw more Democratic opposition, including John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, former Republican President George W. Bush’s two attorneys general.
Leahy voted against both of Bush’s nominees. He was especially fiery in Judiciary hearings for Gonzales, invoking a 2002 Department of Justice memo in which Gonzales suggested to Bush that the fight against terrorism “renders obsolete” various torture restrictions set forth in the Geneva Conventions.
“I will be the first to admit I am not perfect and I make mistakes,” Gonzales said during his hearing after sustained questioning about his role in the war on terrorism.
“Glory hallelujah,” Leahy responded. “You’re the first one in the administration that’s said that.”
While Leahy declined to say whether he considers Sessions a more dangerous nominee than past Republican picks, he expressed alarm over several of Sessions’ past proposals and pronouncements, on topics ranging from civil rights to surveillance powers.
The attorney general has enormous power over these issues and more, Leahy said, adding that the prospect of four years of Republican control of law enforcement policy was “sobering.”
If confirmed as attorney general, Sessions would be charged with enforcing a host of laws he has opposed in the past.
- The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal investigatory powers and protections to the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities. As a senator, Sessions voted against this law, as well as the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which offered similar protections and grants to victims of sexual abuse.
- The USA Freedom Act, the first law that scaled back various surveillance powers allowed under the Patriot Act. Among the reforms was a ban on the bulk collection of Americans’ phone data, as well as greater oversight on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the main body that approves search warrants to investigate potential terrorists. Sessions voted against the law.
- The Voting Rights Act, which codified federal oversight in Southern states with a history of racially motivated voting laws. Though Sessions voted to reauthorize the law in 2006, he called for the repeal of a key enforcement mechanism, which was subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court. While the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama looked to strike down voting restrictions across America, Sessions has signaled support for voter ID laws.
- The Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act, which guarantees that students with disabilities are provided a free public education that meets their needs. Although Sessions supported the 2004 reauthorization of the act, he made remarks in 2000 suggesting the law was burdensome, contending that “certain children are allowed to remain in the classroom, robbing the other children of hours that can never be replaced.”
Sessions has also signaled that he would reverse various Justice Department actions initiated during Obama’s time in office, including the phasing out of private prisons and the increased use of federal consent decrees to reform troubled police departments. Although the DOJ under Obama has also fought in court against strict voter ID laws, Trump’s acting head of the Civil Rights Division helped craft a particularly restrictive ID statute in Texas.
Another area where Leahy has expressed deep reservations about Sessions is immigration policy.
Trump enacted an executive order late Friday barring U.S. entry by people from various countries.
The sweeping executive order indefinitely suspended the Syrian refugee program. It also imposed a 90-day travel ban to the U.S. by residents of seven majority Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
The ban provoked an international outcry, and travelers were detained at airports across the country as the order went into effect. In Rutland, where 100 Syrian or Iraqi refugees were expected to resettle, just two families arrived before Trump suspended the program.
A series of federal court rulings over the weekend blocked some of the immediate deportations of fliers who arrived from affected countries. The Trump administration softened its rhetoric on the order Sunday, though much remains unclear.
If confirmed, Sessions will likely craft the government’s legal defense of this and other executive policies, which could go before the Supreme Court once Trump picks a new justice that swings the court to a Republican majority.
Trump advisers told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa that Sessions is the most influential force in Trump’s administration, and the president’s immigration order issued Friday echoes Sessions’ past rhetoric.
In a letter to congressional colleagues in January, Sessions and conservative Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., pushed for policies similar to those Trump imposed.
“Our reckless refugee programs, lax green card and visa policies, utter failure to enforce rampant visa overstays, along with our wide open southern border, put the U.S. at grave and needless risk,” the two wrote. “There are dozens of terrorists identified or apprehended in recent years whose presence in the United States stems exclusively from immigration policy; there will be many more unless we establish firm controls.”
(Stephen Miller — a former top aide to Sessions in the Senate who now serves as senior policy adviser to Trump — helped draft the immigration order.)
Trump’s order gives the Federal Bureau of Investigation — an agency within the Justice Department — broad authority over developing immigration policy, although the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for enforcement.
The order calls for a number of agencies, including the FBI, to design and implement a permanent vetting program for those seeking to enter the United States.
The vetting mechanisms envisioned in Trump’s Friday order set a high bar for entry, including the development of “a process to evaluate the applicant’s likelihood of becoming a positively contributing member of society.”
Another power Sessions would have as attorney general: to advise Trump on nominees for federal judicial positions and U.S. attorneys, both of which are subject to Senate confirmation. While judges are appointed for life, U.S. attorneys are subject to removal by an incoming president.
(Vermont’s U.S. Attorney Eric Miller, who was nominated by Obama and appointed in June 2015, has not returned calls from VTDigger inquiring about any potential signals from the Trump administration regarding his tenure.)
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a markup hearing to take up Sessions’ nomination and consider sending it to the full Senate for a vote.
Because Republicans hold 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats, Sessions is widely expected to be confirmed, which requires only a majority.
Leahy, however, held out hope that a number of Senate Republicans who criticized Trump’s immigration order Sunday may be rethinking their support for Sessions.
Leahy made reference to the process that refugees have already undergone, only to be turned away now.
“These people have gone through two or three years of vetting, and some have been extraordinarily helpful to the United States in areas where we need help. And they are suddenly being stopped, and their children are being stopped — families are being torn apart,” Leahy said. “This is going to give people pause.”