Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a libertarian-leaning Republican who has clashed with newly confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions on drug policy and criminal justice reform, said in an interview that Democrats secured his vote for Sessions by attacking the longtime Alabama senator’s record on race.
“In some ways, the Democrats made it much more certain that I would vote for him by trying to destroy his character,” Paul said Thursday in an interview with The Washington Post and Roll Call for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” series. “I think it’s very upsetting that they didn’t choose to go after him on particular issues, like civil asset forfeiture, where they might have been able to persuade someone. They chose to go after a man’s character.”
Paul, who won a second six-year term in November — and was one of the 16 candidates Trump defeated in the Republican primaries — broke with many Republicans in his support for drug decriminalization and criminal justice reform. In the Obama years, when the Justice Department allowed states such as Colorado to legalize marijuana, Sessions opposed it; Paul supported it.
In the interview, Paul acknowledged that some libertarian goals might be stymied by a Trump administration. “There still will have to be a lot of standing up and saying ‘there is a right to privacy,’ ” Paul said. “This was a vote where I ended up voting for someone who was a colleague, who I knew.”
Paul did not know Mike Pompeo, the Kansas congressman who became Trump’s CIA director. He didn’t vote for Pompeo. He had also pledged to oppose “neoconservative” nominees such as John Bolton, which, given Paul’s perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, meant that they would likely be voted out without a recommendation.
But for libertarians outside the Senate, Paul’s vote for Sessions has been a source of frustration and confusion, despite a Facebook post in which Paul tried to explain the vote.
On Thursday, Matt Welch, the former editor in chief of Reason magazine,* cited Paul strategist Doug Stafford for a possible explanation of the vote. When Paul opposed Loretta E. Lynch for attorney general, “there was hope that her views on asset forfeiture and other areas of concern conflicted enough with those of the more reform-friendly Obama that her potential replacement could conceivably be better.” With Sessions, there was little hope that a replacement nominee would veer more toward Paul’s views.
But in Thursday’s conversation, Paul repeatedly emphasized that any discussion of Sessions’s views got lost in the Democratic attacks. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s viral, short-circuited speech against Sessions, in which the Democrat from Massachusetts quoted Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter of opposition to Sessions as a judicial nominee, struck Paul as “personal” and not based on “principle.”
“The thing is, I’ve seen pictures of him marching for voting rights with [congressman] John Lewis,” Paul said of Sessions. “He is for voting rights. There are things no one wants attached to their character, no person that I know wants to be called racist, or that you’re trying to prevent someone to vote.”
And Paul hadn’t given up hope of influencing the president, as a senator from a state that he won handily. “There was a discussion in the White House the other day about civil asset forfeiture,” he said. “I think civil asset forfeiture’s a terrible idea. I’d like to have that discussion with the president.”
That discussion, however, made news of another kind when Trump — seemingly with tongue in check — promised to go after a Texas state legislator who was campaigning against civil asset forfeiture.
*Disclosure: I worked for Reason from 2006 through 2008.