The first of a two-day confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial attorney general nominee begins today. Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama faces questions from his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, where he serves as chair of the immigration subcommittee. Trump’s pick has drawn widespread outrage because of Sessions’s opposition to the Voting Rights Act, support for anti-immigration legislation and history of making racist comments. We are joined by David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who is set to testify at Sessions’ Senate hearing, and with Kyle Barry, policy counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and co-author their report opposing Jeff Sessions’s nomination.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The first of a two-day confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial attorney general nominee begins today. Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama faces questions from his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, where he serves as chairman of the immigration subcommittee.
Trump’s pick has drawn widespread outrage because of Sessions’ opposition to the Voting Rights Act, support for anti-immigration legislation and history of making racist comments, which included reportedly saying he thought the Ku Klux Klan was, quote, “OK until I found out they smoked pot,” unquote. He’s also called the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.” Sessions, whose full name is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, also called Jeff, is named after Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, and Civil War General Pierre Beauregard. Those set to testify at Sessions’ hearing Wednesday include civil rights era icon and Democratic Congressman John Lewis and Democratic Senator Cory Booker, marking the first time in Senate history a sitting senator will testify against another sitting senator for a Cabinet post during a confirmation hearing.
In 1986, Sessions was denied confirmation for a federal judgeship by a Republican-controlled Senate committee over his racist comments. This is the late Senator Ted Kennedy speaking at Sessions’ 1986 confirmation hearing.
SEN. TED KENNEDY: Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era, which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past. It’s inconceivable to me that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a U.S. attorney, let alone a United States federal judge.
KEN BODDIE: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, he was brought face to face with things he personally had said. For example, that the NAACP and the Civil Liberties Union are un-American organizations.
JEFF SESSIONS: These comments that you could say about commie organizations or something, I may have said something like that in a general way, and that probably was wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Ahead of today’s hearing, The New York Times slammed Sessions for failing to turn over dozens, if not hundreds, of documents requested by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s questionnaire. The Huffington Post reported in December Sessions’ submitted questionnaire failed to disclose even the fact he’d been denied confirmation for the federal judgeship in 1986. And while the Office of Government Ethics has completed Sessions’ ethics report, The Washington Post reports Sessions failed to disclose he owns oil interests in Alabama – a breach of federal ethics requirements.
For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by two guests. David Cole is the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He is set to testify for the ACLU against Sessions in the Senate hearing on Wednesday. Cole is professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University. His most recent book, Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law. His piece for The New York Review of Books is headlined “Five Questions for Jeff Sessions.” Also with us, Kyle Barry, policy counsel with NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the lead author of their report opposing Jeff Sessions’ nomination.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! David Cole, what will you be saying on Wednesday in your testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee? What are your major concerns about Senator Sessions becoming attorney general?
DAVID COLE: So, first, Amy, we’re not actually opposing Senator Sessions’ confirmation, because, as a long-standing policy, the ACLU does not support or endorse nominations. And in fact, we rarely, as a result, testify in hearings. But we chose to testify in this hearing because we have concerns about his fidelity to the rights and interests of virtually all vulnerable groups in this country.
There’s been a lot of talk about his insensitivity to or hostility to voting rights for African Americans and his racially offensive statements and the like. But that’s just the beginning. This man defended Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and spoke out very strongly against a resolution that Senator Leahy introduced that would simply have underscored that it is not permissible to use religion as a litmus test for immigration. He has called the Muslim faith a “toxic ideology.” It’s a faith that millions of Americans abide by. He voted against extending the hate crimes law to women and to gays and lesbians, because, he said, “I just don’t see that they’re victims of discrimination.” Now he’s going to be put in charge of enforcing the hate crimes law. If you can’t see discrimination, you’re not going to do a very good job enforcing the laws against discrimination.
He’s abused his office as a prosecutor. Not only did he prosecute voting rights activists for essentially getting out the black vote in Alabama, but he also worked with U.S. Steel, a contributor to his senatorial campaign, to prosecute one of their competitors in a case that was ultimately dismissed by the judge hearing the case as the worst case of prosecutorial misconduct that that judge had ever seen. And now we’re going to put this man in charge of the most powerful prosecutor’s office in the United States?
So we think the Senate has an obligation to investigate, to inquire, to get the many questions about Senator Sessions’ record answered before they vote on the confirmation. I think the central question is, look, in 1986, he wasn’t qualified to be a local federal judge; why is he qualified today for a much more powerful post, namely the attorney general of the United States?
AMY GOODMAN: That denial, the Senate Judiciary not approving him for that federal judgeship – he was what? Nominated by President Reagan. Highly unusual. Wasn’t it only two people, him one of them, in the previous half-century about, 48 years, that did not get through the Senate Judiciary Committee?
DAVID COLE: That’s right, and from the party that controlled the presidency and controlled the Senate at the time, so, you know, very high threshold. And yet, you know, the kinds of statements he made and the kinds of actions he took, I mean, he essentially – when voting rights activists started getting people out to vote, using the Voting Rights Act, which was designed to get people to vote who weren’t able to vote before, many people treated that as cause for celebration. Jeff Sessions treated it as cause for investigation. And he went out, and his people interviewed black voters throughout Alabama counties and asked them why they voted, how they voted, who brought them to vote, and then prosecuted three civil rights activists for doing nothing more than getting people to the polls and assisting them in their exercising of their constitutional rights. The case was – many of the counts were dismissed outright by the judge as baseless even before trial. He continued nonetheless to go to trial, and all the defendants were acquitted. This, you know – so I think there are serious questions—
AMY GOODMAN: That was the Marion Three in Alabama.
DAVID COLE: Exactly. And so, I think those – you know, those questions, serious questions, that were raised by those actions – it’s not just statements, it actions. I think unless those questions can be answered in a more – you know, in a more understanding and understandable way today than they could back then, then I think the Senate has to take this – its obligation seriously. I know it’s difficult because he’s one of their colleagues, but at the end of the day, the question is: Can he be the attorney general for all the American people, and can he protect the rights of the most vulnerable that he is responsible for enforcing?
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of his colleagues, how rare, David Cole, is it that New Jersey Senator Cory Booker will now testify against Jeff Sessions becoming attorney general? Has this ever happened before in Senate history, a sitting senator testifying against the appointment of another sitting senator?
DAVID COLE: Well, not to my knowledge, although I’m not a historian of the Senate. But I do think it’s extraordinary. But it reflects just how concerned many people are about the ability of Jeff Sessions to protect the rights of those he’s being put in charge of protecting.
AMY GOODMAN: Kyle Barry, you’re policy counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. You authored the report on Jeff Sessions. Why did you find it necessary to write a report on this nomination in particular?
KYLE BARRY: Thanks, Amy. I think one of the first things that people have to remember is that the attorney general is really the chief protector and enforcer of all of our nation’s civil rights laws, including the constitutional guarantee of equal protection and a host of very important civil rights legislation. And in Jeff Sessions, you have someone who has spent over 40 years of his political and legal career opposing civil rights and opposing principles of equality. And we’re now entering a time, in the current political climate, in particular, where civil rights will have such an important role really preserving the rule of law in our democracy and, of course, protecting the vulnerable communities that those laws are designed to protect. And so we have very grave concerns that Senator Sessions is someone who can live up to that solemn responsibility.
And, you know, you’ve been talking about the 1986 hearing and his nomination that was rejected, and what we found in looking at decades of his records since then, including time as state attorney general, time, 20 years, as a United States senator, is that the concerns from the 1980s have been borne out consistently over time. And issue by issue, whether it’s voting rights or criminal justice or education equality, all these issues that DOJ has a central role in dealing with, Jeff Sessions has opposed civil rights and has opposed principles of equality at every step of the way.
AMY GOODMAN: Even recently, when Republicans were looking at prison reform, Senator Sessions worked against changes in mandatory minimums. Can you talk about this, also his support of the use of chain gangs?
KYLE BARRY: Sure. Yeah, we have very serious concerns about Jeff Sessions’ record on criminal justice in particular. On sentencing reform, he was really an outlier, on the fringe of even his own party, in opposing commonsense reforms to federal sentencing rules, and particularly the use of mandatory minimums, which have shown to be not just discriminatory, particularly against African Americans and Latinos, but also entirely ineffective. And that reform package had the support of Republican leadership, including the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Chuck Grassley. And Jeff Sessions led opposition to that, to that reform.
And, you know, particularly horrifying, as you mentioned, when he was a state attorney general in Alabama, he was a very vocal supporter of the use of chain gangs, a practice that had been recently reinstated when he was state attorney general. And he, at the time, praised the use of chain gangs. He seemed to be completely, I think, at best, oblivious to the racial implications, the historical implications in a state like Alabama, with such a long and sordid history of racial discrimination. And to him, the image of chaining prisoners together on the side of public roadways was totally fine for him. And, in fact, he specifically stated that he thought that would not be embarrassing to Alabama, that that would not be an image problem to Alabama and that the practice was perfectly constitutional and proper. And for someone who was then a state attorney general to demonstrate that kind of extraordinary racial insensitivity, I think, to put it lightly, you know, imagine that on a nationwide scale, if he is promoted to the highest law enforcement position in the entire United States. I think that’s very concerning.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, David Cole, you talked about his record 30 years ago, his prosecution, as the U.S. attorney in Alabama, of voting rights activist Albert Turner, his wife Evelyn. Albert Turner had marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, considered one of the greatest voting rights activists, got what? Alabama went from zero to something like 70,000 registered voters, when they were being then prosecuted. Some of his supporters, Sessions’ supporters, say, “That was 30 years ago.” So, in your final response, your overall concerns about today, David Cole?
DAVID COLE: So, yeah, that was 30 years ago. But since then, he has voted against lifting felon disenfranchisement, a practice that disproportionally affects African Americans. Since then, he has supported voter ID laws, which suppress the votes of African-Americans. Since then, he called the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, which gutted a central portion of the Voting Rights Act, a good day for the South. And what we know is that that led to the South engaging in racially motivated voter suppression across the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to—
DAVID COLE: And—
AMY GOODMAN: Yes? Last point.
DAVID COLE: And he’s not just targeted African Americans. When he was asked whether Donald Trump’s claim that, as a celebrity, he could grab women by the genitals, whether that constituted a description of sexual assault, he said no. So this is a man who is blind, at best, and hostile, at worst, too many of the rights that he is supposed to be enforcing if he becomes attorney general.
AMY GOODMAN: David Cole, thanks for being with us. You’ll be testifying tomorrow at the confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general of the United States. David Cole, national legal director of the ACLU. And Kyle Barry, policy counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. We will link to your report at democracynow.org.
When we come back, we look at the case of the accused airport gunman Esteban Santiago, who could face death penalty charges for killing five people when he opened fire in a crowded airport in Fort Lauderdale on Friday. He was allowed to keep his gun despite walking into the FBI in Alaska, telling them he is being controlled by U.S. intelligence, being institutionalized and then being freed. Stay with us.