Senate Judiciary Committee members on Tuesday sparred over whether Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) can operate independently of the president if confirmed as attorney general — a debate that took on new importance after President Trump’s late-night firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates for refusing to defend his immigration order.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee’s chairman, said that Sessions will “follow the law, regardless of whether he would have supported it as a matter of policy as a senator.” He said Sessions offered no help in drafting Trump’s order, although it is “not clear to me why it would be a problem even if he had been involved.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, attacked Trump’s order and noted that Sessions’s ideals seem to have at least shaped it. She read aloud from Yates’s memo declaring that she did not find Trump’s immigration order lawful, then referenced the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when two top Justice Department officials resigned over an order from President Richard Nixon.
“Members, that statement took guts,” Feinstein said. “That statement said what an independent attorney general should do. That statement took a steel spine to stand up and say no. It took the courage of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus, who stood up to President Nixon. That is what an attorney general must be willing and able to do. I have no confidence that Senator Sessions will do that.”
The committee scheduled a vote on Sessions’s nomination for Wednesday morning. A vote by the full Senate is expected later in the week.
Trump replaced Yates with Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who said he would enforce the president’s directive to temporarily ban entry into the United States for citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said he will vote against the nominee because of concerns about Sessions’s civil rights record, his failure to address Russia’s interference in the November presidential election and ethical conflicts in the Trump administration, among other issues. He took aim Tuesday at Trump’s firing of Yates, saying the president had “placed the independence of the Justice Department at stake.”
“I’ve said and I believe the president’s decision to fire acting attorney general Sally Yates is shameful,” Leahy said. “His accusation that she betrayed the Department of Justice is dangerous. The attorney general is the people’s attorney, not the president’s attorney.”
On the first day of his confirmation hearing, Jan. 10, Sessions sought to assure senators that he could fairly enforce the law as attorney general, and he said repeatedly during that day’s eight-hour grilling that he would not let his personal views interfere with his duties. He said he would abide by Supreme Court decisions on abortion rights and legalized same-sex marriage, although he opposes both. And Sessions said he would recuse himself from any Justice Department investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email practices or her family’s charitable foundation — issues he raised while campaigning for Trump.
On the hearing’s second day, several civil rights leaders spoke out against Sessions, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) broke with tradition by testifying as a sitting senator against a colleague. Booker said he believed that, as attorney general, Sessions would not defend voting rights or the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
Appearing on the nominee’s behalf, Michael Mukasey, a former federal judge who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush, testified that Sessions is “thoroughly dedicated to the rule of law and the mission of the department.”
Ron Hosko, president of the nonprofit Law Enforcement Action Network and a former FBI assistant director, sent a letter in support of Sessions to the Judiciary Committee on Monday and said 20,000 members or supporters of the law enforcement community were backing his nomination.
“Sen. Sessions enjoys great respect from law enforcement officials across the country who believe the nation will be well served by his confirmation,” Hosko said.
But no Democrat on the committee has declared an intention to vote for Sessions, and Democrats are increasing efforts to delay the confirmation of several of Trump’s Cabinet nominees.
Philip Rucker and Robert Costa contributed to this report.