Sen. Elizabeth Warren will not be permitted to speak about Jeff Sessions on the Senate floor until after the full Senate votes on his confirmation, which is expected to take place on Wednesday night. But, once the gag is removed from her, the first thing she will say is that the battle over Sessions is anything but over.
“When he is attorney general, we must hold him accountable,” Warren told me Wednesday, when I asked her what she would say on the Senate floor once she is permitted to speak again. “That will be the first thing I want to say.”
In our interview, Warren stressed that she wants this moment to be seen as only one of many recent ones that, taken together, should inspire and energize voters who are feeling particularly dispirited right now. On Tuesday night, Senate Republicans employed an obscure Senate rule to forbid Warren from speaking further on the Sessions nomination, as retribution for her audacious conduct, which included reading from a letter by the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., in which she castigated Sessions’s record on voting rights.
Warren noted that one positive outcome that has emerged from this episode is that a lot of people have now read King’s letter in its entirety. The quote from King’s letter that is getting all the attention is the one that McConnell singled out, which says that as U.S. attorney for Alabama, Sessions used “the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” But the full letter, which was written in 1986, ties that episode to a much broader, decades long struggle by African Americans to secure the franchise, and to the fierce resistance it has encountered (and, in some ways, continues to encounter in the form of voter suppression tactics).
“I want everyone to read that letter,” Warren said. “The letter is about the civil rights movement in the 1960s; what was still going on in the 1980s; and what is still going on today.”
Warren argued that even if Sessions is confirmed, which appears likely, this episode should only spur Americans to take more seriously the need to remain politically engaged, in order to prepare for the possibility that under Attorney General Sessions, the Justice Department may regress when it comes to enforcing voting and civil rights.
“If Sessions makes it through, this is not over,” Warren said. “The U.S. Senate has the constitutional responsibility to oversee the Department of Justice. That means we have to be out there on the front lines, every single day, watching what he does.”
I argued earlier that Democrats may be facing some very dispiriting days ahead, with Republicans effectively keeping them shut out of power, even as Republicans are likely to rack up some real victories. I asked Warren whether she agreed that there is a serious danger that voters could become demoralized by the failure of Democrats to stop the Trump/GOP agenda.
Warren conceded that “of course there’s a danger” that voters might get dispirited. “We’re going to have a lot of losses here,” Warren said. “But we’re not going to roll over and play dead. I believe we should be energized by what [McConnell] has done. I believe that it calls on us to fight back more passionately than ever.”
“We can’t shoot at everything that moves,” Warren said. “We have to be smart and strategic and push hard wherever we have any advantage. We have to use the slivers of our powers here in Congress to maximum effect.”
Those slivers of power are pretty slim. But Warren argued that over the long term, voters should remain engaged in an effort to, among other things, hold Sessions accountable for his tenure at the Justice Department. There is a great deal that the Sessions Justice Department could do to roll back civil rights gains. Trump’s persistent, continuing lies about voter fraud have led voting rights advocates to fear that a major wave of voter suppression could be in the works on the national level. The Justice Department could be key to that, by refusing to enforce key remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act, or by launching crackdowns on voter fraud that lead to the purging of voter rolls, harming untold numbers of real voters.
What’s more, as Samuel Bagenstos has explained in detail, it will also be important to watch whether the Sessions Justice Department does things like gut the department’s Civil Rights Division or scale back the department’s focus on police misconduct, housing discrimination and hate crimes.
Warren said Americans should remain engaged by just how transformative the Trump era threatens to be — and that persistent focus and attention were the keys. She said that the outpouring of response to recent events — the recent Women’s March on Washington and the backlash to Trump’s immigration ban come to mind — suggested this was really possible.
“People all over this country need to see how Donald Trump is trying to transform America into a meaner, more hateful place,” Warren said. “Democracy is not a machine that runs itself. It requires people.”