The most surprising thing about Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifying at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s oversight hearing today is that he is still in office
At his January 10 confirmation hearing, senators challenged his integrity, Russian connections and views on civil rights, crime and immigration. His Twitter-happy boss, President Donald Trump, has since labeled him a “disappointment” and “weak.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have been repeatedly appalled by Sessions’s actions as attorney general. Many have been furious since they learned he testified falsely about Russia on Jan. 10.
Despite all this, Sessions has accomplished far more than other Cabinet members.
The office of attorney general is uniquely powerful under the U.S. Constitution. If the attorney general decides an executive action is unlawful, it rarely moves forward as is. The attorney general also litigates on behalf of most federal agencies. Most notably, the attorney general is expected to act as the legal check on the president.
The panel today is sure to test Sessions’s stamina, the thickness of his skin and his power to defend — and praise — his boss. There is much to ask about: Trump’s travel ban, the offensive against sanctuary cities, national security surveillance and elimination of protections against gender-identity-based discrimination. Here are some additional suggestions:
This is Sessions’s first appearance before the panel since his false denial of contacts with Russia’s U.S. ambassador during the 2016 presidential campaign. The committee should seek to learn the full extent of those meetings. Once his Russian contacts were revealed, the new attorney general announced his recusal from the FBI’s Russia investigation. He should now detail the scope of his recusal, including why it shouldn’t extend to personnel decisions that directly affect the investigation — such as the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Sessions has also never fully explained his role in that dismissal.
When Sessions testified in June before the Senate Intelligence Committee, he refused to recount his conversations with the president. The attorney general used a specious rationale: He wanted to preserve the president’s ability to assert executive privilege in the future. The Democrats have sent notice that they now expect answers.
The committee should also ask Sessions to state that he will not interfere with any aspect of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, including decisions whether to share evidence with Congress and to make public its findings.
Sessions has cut back enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. His commitment to protect minority voters has long been suspect; the Senate rejected his judicial nomination in 1986 in part because of allegations regarding his prosecution of black civil-rights activists for assisting voters.
As attorney general, Sessions withdrew the Justice Department’s longstanding position that Texas’s photo ID law was intended to discriminate against minority voters. He has supported restrictive photo identification laws that disproportionately suppress minority votes.
This argument dovetails with Trump’s continuing and spurious claim that voter fraud cost him a popular vote victory. He has launched a commission to investigate, stocking the panel with partisans who have long histories of suppressing the vote. The judiciary committee must ask whether there has been any coordination between the Justice Department and the voter fraud commission.
Sessions has also switched sides in a major U.S. Supreme Court case. The Justice Department is now supporting Ohio’s rules for purging voters from the rolls — contrary to the DOJ’s former position that the law prohibits this type of purge.
In addition to asking about the merits of these cases, the judiciary panel should ask Sessions whether he shares the department’s traditional reluctance to change litigating positions mid-stream. Doing so suggests the Justice Department is arguing a political agenda rather than an interpretation of the law.
By statute, the attorney general is authorized to sue police departments that engage in unconstitutional behavior. The Obama administration opened 24 investigations and left behind 18 consent decrees that require police departments to avoid unnecessary force, unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, and racially targeted policing and to hold officers accountable.
Sessions has strongly denounced consent decrees — by far the most effective means of forcing systemic change in police departments — as “an end run around the democratic process.” And the Sessions Justice Department seems to be abandoning the Obama administration’s efforts to investigate potential violations.
The Senate committee should explore this record, as well as Sessions’ decision to stop critical reviews of police departments by the Justice Department’s community oriented policing program and to lift Obama administration restrictions on transfers of military equipment and weapons to police departments.
Sessions has taken a hard line on criminal justice issues throughout his career. In the Senate, he helped block the enactment of bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation. Now, as attorney general, he has ordered prosecutors to seek the most serious charges available and to increase the seizure of assets that may be connected to crimes. He has repeatedly demanded stepped up law enforcement to counter what he calls a crisis of violent crime — despite statistics showing crime rates near historic lows.
Committee members will want to press Sessions on his underlying motivations and challenge his sentencing policies.
These are just some of the major areas that the Senate Judiciary Committee should discuss with Sessions. The attorney general will likely have his hands full responding to the senators, but his most important audience will be in the White House. Stay tuned for the nation’s leading television viewer to tweet his review.
William Yeomans served in the Justice Department for 26 years, including as Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. He also served as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is now the Goldfarb Fellow at the Alliance for Justice and a lecturer at Columbia Law School.