Sen. Cory Booker testified Wednesday that Sen. Jeff Sessions is the wrong man to lead the Justice Department, saying the Alabama Republican’s lengthy record in Congress exposed views that are inconsistent with the venerated job he is seeking.
In a passionate speech from the witness table, the New Jersey Democrat ticked off issue after issue, asserting in each instance that Sessions would not seek justice as the U.S. attorney general.
“If confirmed, Senator Sessions will be required to pursue justice for women, but his record indicates that he won’t,” Booker said. “He will be expected to defend the equal rights of gay and lesbian and transgender Americans, but his record indicates that he won’t. He will be expected to defend voting rights, but his record indicates that he won’t. He will be expected to defend the rights of immigrants and affirm their human dignity, but the record indicates that he won’t.”
The remarks marked the first time a sitting senator has testified against a colleague’s nomination for a Cabinet post, and they were among the most notable in Sessions’s two-day confirmation hearing.
In total, legislators heard testimony from 15 supporters and detractors, and Sessions answered questions over more than 101/2 hours. Nothing that was said was likely to stop the Republican-controlled Senate from confirming him, with Democrats failing to land anything close to a fatal blow during the hearing.
Booker said he could not stay silent, even though he knew some colleagues “aren’t happy that I am breaking with Senate tradition.”
“In the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country,” he said.
And he came after Sessions perhaps more forcefully than any witness before him.
“Senator Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requisite of the job — to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights and justice for all of our citizens,” Booker said. “In fact, at numerous times in his career, he has demonstrated a hostility toward these convictions.”
Sessions is generally well liked in the Senate, despite views that draw polarized responses. To those in law enforcement and conservative legal circles, he is an honorable man, dedicated to enforcing the law no matter his personal feelings. To civil rights advocates, immigrant advocates and others, his record makes him a troubling selection to lead the Justice Department.
Former attorney general Michael Mukasey testified Wednesday that Sessions is “thoroughly dedicated to the rule of law and the mission of the department.”
Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said his voting record and actions “demonstrate an unwavering commitment to equal protection under the law.”
But David Cole, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that record “raises serious questions about the fitness of Senator Sessions to be an attorney general for all American people.” And Amita Swadhin, a rape survivor, attacked Sessions for saying that grabbing a woman by the genitals does not necessarily constitute sexual assault.
That comment by Sessions came after the a video that recorded Trump talking about such conduct went public. “Millions of sexual-assault survivors were triggered in the wake of these events,” Swadhin said.
The senator has since said his remarks were bungled, and on Tuesday he asserted unequivocally that grabbing a woman by the genitals is sexual assault.
In his testimony, Sessions sought to persuade his colleagues that he would assiduously enforce the law. He said that although his politics may indicate otherwise, he would abide by the Supreme Court decision underpinning abortion rights and would similarly follow the ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. He said he understands that the waterboarding of terrorism suspects to elicit information is “absolutely improper and illegal.”
Finally, he declared that he would recuse himself from any Justice Department investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state or her family’s charitable foundation — mindful that his previous comments “could place my objectivity in question.”
Trump said this of his nominee’s performance: “He was brilliant.”
Democratic lawmakers used the witnesses to highlight some of Sessions’s more controversial stances, such as his opposition to a hate-crimes bill and his expression of support for a Supreme Court decision that invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act. Republicans, meanwhile, tried to cast those opposed to the nominee as biased and unwilling to give him a fair chance.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) debated with the ACLU’s Cole over whether a critical report the group released on Sessions left out key details. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) questioned NAACP President Cornell William Brooks about his organization’s low rating of Sessions, noting that virtually all Republicans received poor marks.
“I hope that doesn’t make us all racist,” Graham quipped.
Oscar Vazquez told legislators how he had come to the United States with documents when he was just 12, taking a bus with his mother from Mexico. He said he always considered the United States home, but when he sought to enlist in the Army near the end of high school, a recruiter told him he couldn’t, because of his immigration status.
Vazquez would go on to enroll at Arizona State University, marry a U.S. citizen and — eventually — get the documentation he needed to serve in the military, including in Afghanistan. He said undocumented immigrants are worried about Sessions as attorney general, especially those who took advantage of an executive action by President Obama allowing people who came to the United States illegally as children to receive work permits.
“There is a lot of fear, most of all,” Vazquez said.
But supporter Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, spoke of how Sessions would improve relations between federal authorities and local police and perhaps not be so quick to judge officers involved in high-profile incidents.
“The lines of communications will be more direct than they have been,” Canterbury said of the Justice Department under Sessions.
Sessions talked Tuesday of improving morale in local police departments, which he maintained had been unfairly maligned, and he notably refused to commit to leaving unchanged consent decrees mandating changes at certain departments. On Thursday, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch is scheduled to travel to Baltimore to announce such a decree in Baltimore, where the 2015 death of a black man in police custody led to riots.