When President-elect Donald Trump nominated US Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be the next attorney general, the institutional outcry came nearly immediately. The New York Timeseditorial board called the pick “an insult to justice.” The NAACP declared him unfit to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. And it wasn’t just civil rights leaders—civil libertarians expressed a few fears of their own.
There were immediate fears also raised by those who advocate for cannabis legalization as well as those who count themselves among the 122,814 Americans who work in the legal cannabis industry. The Obama administration allowed the adult-use laws in Colorado and Washington state to proceed, based on the 2013 Cole memo. But that memo was just a memo. It interpreted the law and established policy. It did not establish federal legality.
Jeff Sessions is no friend of cannabis, legal or otherwise. He famously declared, during a Senate hearing in April 2016, that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He added: “We need grownups in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it is in fact a very real danger.”
Supporting Sessions is, of course, President-elect Trump, along with nearly all of his Republican colleagues. A large number of law enforcement organizations have also endorsed Sessions. That, according to Politico, makes him a lock for confirmation. And unless some bombshell evidence emerges over the next two days of Senate confirmation hearings, Sessions is, indeed, very likely to be confirmed.
If you’re reading Leafly, you’re probably interested in the Sessions hearings for their cannabis-related content. But you can’t sit through two days of testimony to get it. Allow us to be your eyes and ears. Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott and editor Ben Adlin will be monitoring the hearings, posting regular updates, and highlighting whatever cannabis content may emerge.
Honestly, we’re not expecting much. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), has a strong track record of supporting reasonable cannabis legal reform. But Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has long opposed what he sees as all this nonsense about marijuana. For years, Grassley has blocked any move to reform banking laws that keep the legal cannabis industry largely a cash-only business. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s high-ranking California Democrat, has for years opposed the will of her state’s citizens and stood against both medical and adult-use legalization.
Check back with us over the coming two days. We’ll keep rolling updates, newest first.
2:39 — With the hearing complete, let’s take a minute to look into one of the more interesting claims Sessions made yesterday. Is the national crime rate, in fact, rising? As with all data, context is everything. These graphs (below) posted in October 2016 by Politifact make it clear that violent crime, and reported murders, have declined dramatically since the early 1990s, and have remained in a fairly stable and slight decline since 2000. There clearly was an uptick in murders and violent crime during 2015, however. Whether that trend continues, or proves to be a blip in an overall decline, remains to be seen. But it’s a point fairly given to Sessions: Murders jumped from 14,000 in 2014 to 16,000 in 2015.
2:02 — That’s a wrap, people. Thanks for joining us!
1:54 — Attorney William Smith, who has worked under Sessions, dismisses those who’ve criticized Sessions on racial or other civil rights grounds. “I doubt any of them have spent 30 minutes—or 10 minutes—talking to him,” Smith said. He’s clearly trying to humanize Sessions, recalling how the AG nominee would go to Dairy Queen and order a Heath-bar Blizzard, “heavy on the Heath.” The lawyer concludes by promising that anyone who comes before Jeff Sessions will get equal justice. “After 20 years of knowing Sen. Sessions,” he says, “I have not seen any racism [in him] because it does not exist.”
1:52 — There’s something to be said for Richmond’s criticism of lumping black witnesses together and putting them last. This witness panel consists of six black men, three of whom heartily support Sessions’s confirmation and three of whom vehemently oppose it. They’ve been called in alternating order.
1:44 — Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) calls out the hearing’s organizers for calling black witnesses last, likens it to being told to go to the back of the bus. “The record should reflect my consternation at the unprecedented process that brought us here,” Richmond says. He then dives into harsh criticism of Sessions’s record on racial justice. “If he were in fact a champion for civil rights,” he asked, wouldn’t the civil rights community endorse his nomination instead of almost unanimously opposing it?” Characterizations and revisionists histories are not the same things as facts,” Richmond says, arguing that any senator who votes to confirm him “will be permanently marked as a co-conspirator” in eroding hard-won civil rights protections.
1:42 — Protesters cause a brief pause in the testimony. What the protestors are shouting is mostly unintelligible over the livestream audio, but members of the Congressional Black Caucus can be seen in the background nodding in apparent agreement.
1:34 — US Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who risked his life in the name of racial equality during the civil rights era, urges the confirmation of an attorney general who recognizes the need to fight ongoing discrimination. “We’ve made progress, but we’re not there yet.” Lewis says. It doesn’t matter if Sessions smiles or sweet talks senators during these hearings, he adds, “We need someone’s who’s going to stand up and speak out for the people who need help, who are being discriminated against.”
1:26 — Willie Huntley, an Alabama lawyer who was hired by Sessions as a federal prosecutor, says Sessions will protect the rights of all Americans. When Sessions hired Huntley, he said, “We ended up meeting for about three hours,” discussing football, religion, and family. “During that meeting with him, I got the feeling more and more that the allegations [of racism] being spread through the press weren’t true.” At no time over the years they’ve worked together has Sessions demonstrated racial insensitivity, said Huntley, who is black.
1:17 — “I know it’s exceptional for a senator to testify against another senator,” Sen. Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, begins. But he feels it appropriate because “I will always choose conscience and country” over tradition. So far Booker’s testimony is centering on racial protections and efforts to tamp down discrimination. “America was founded heralding not law and order but justice for all,” he says, “and critical to that is equal justice under the law.” Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to that. If confirmed, Sessions will be expected to defend the rights of women, racial minorities, voting rights, and other interests of equity, Booker says. “His record indicates that he won’t.”
1:12 — Cory Booker is in the house.
1:06 — And we’re back, but only kind of. People are milling about. It seems whoever’s in charge of livestreaming this thing decided to go on break and leave the camera rolling at about crotch level. Lots of butts. Much decorum.
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“I can’t characterize what he said, but I hope he won’t interfere with legalization.”
12:55 — While on break, let’s quickly tip our hats to US Sen. Rand Paul. In an interview Monday with the Washington Post, the Republican from Kentucky said he tried to explain to Sessions that defending states’ rights would mean allowing cannabis legalization to proceed. Did it stick? “Many conservatives believe in leaving states to themselves for the most part,” Paul said. “Decisions like legalizing marijuana should be left up to states. I’ve had that discussion with Sessions. I can’t characterize what he said, but I hope he won’t interfere with legalization. He needs to answer that himself.” This is not reassuring.
12:38 — We’re on recess until 1 p.m. EST, everybody. Get yourselves a snack.
12:35 — Asked about the importance of a politically independent attorney general, former US Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who held office from 2007 to 2009 notes that while “US attorneys are political appointees,” their role upon taking office is to enforce federal law. This “justifies public faith in law enforcement,” Mukasey says. Taking actions that appear politically motivated, on the other hand, undermines that faith. “They have to recognize that, as soon as they take the oath, that’s they’re charge.”
12:17 — Asked about Sessions’s handling of voting rights matters while attorney general of Alabama, NAACP President Cornell Brooks replies that “Based upon the record, we have no reason to believe it would be a high priority” for Sessions if he were confirmed as US attorney general. Brooks stresses that the NAACP acts in many ways as a partner with the Department of Justice on civil rights. But that, he said, presupposes the department “is willing to see” oppression.
11:24 — Vermont Sen. Leahy asks Amita Swadhin to address the effect of an incoming President boasting about his ability and inclination to commit sexual assault. “The majority of victims of sexual assault are assailed by people they know,” Swadhin says. “It’s already so hard for survivors to come forward, because it means we have to testify against the people we put our trust in. So to be able to trust the state more than we fear our intimately known perpetrators, we have to see people in control of the state take a hard line against sexual assault.” With Trump, we have an incoming President who “may have actually engaged in sexual assault himself; it’s incredibly concerning.”
11:15 — Texas Sen. Cornyn raises an issue that probably everyone in the room can agree on. At least somewhat. He asks Canterbury, of the Fraternal Order of Police, about the rising problem of police being forced to deal with America’s refusal to address the issue of mental illness. Canterbury agrees. “There’s very little assistance at the street level to deal with mental illness,” he says. Assessing and treating mentally ill individuals, in the heat of a 911 call, “should not be the responsibility of the first responder. It’s a huge issue for local and state officers. I don’t know what we’re going to do to fix that. The community-based mental health facilities just are not there anymore.”
11:03 — Russia, Putin, and kompromat enter the morning. Sen. Orrin Hatch puts the question to Mike Mukasey, attorney general under George W. Bush. What’s the proper response of the attorney general to an ongoing investigation that may involve the President? Mukasey says to pursue the investigation “to its logical conclusion. Which is to say, where the facts and the law lead.” Hatch asks: Does the attorney general have the power to stop an investigation underway by the FBI? Mukasey: “Yes.”
10:44 — Question is put to Civil Rights Commission member Kirsanow, regarding the Marion Three case. Kirsanow defends Sessions’s work on that case. “Had a prosecutor not taken this [case] and pursued this, there would have been some serious questions about his integrity.”
10:06 — Larry Thompson, former US Attorney in Georgia, has known Sessions for more than 30 years. He’s in favor of the guy.
10:00 — David Cole, chief counsel for the ACLU, says he wouldn’t hire Jeff Sessions if Sessions were applying for a job as an intern.
9:52 — To see Canterbury, the head of the nation’s largest police organization, testifying in his South Carolina accent, next to Cornell Brooks, head of the NAACP, is to witness one instance of the two Americas that exist today, sitting side by side. Canterbury sees police under unfair metaphorical fire in the post-Ferguson age. Brooks sees people of color under literal fire from police officers in Ferguson and other communities across the nation.
9:51 — Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, says he and his group, the nation’s largest organization of police officers, enthusiastically endorse Sessions, who has “been a true partner to law enforcement.”
9:50 — Cornell Brooks, head of the NAACP, testifies that his organization “believes Sen. Sessionsis unfit to serve as attorney general.”
9:49 — Jayann Sepich, the mother of a rape and murder victim, speaks in favor of Sessions, who assisted her effort to pass laws that allow the collection of DNA from people arrested for serious crimes.
9:48 —Amita Swadhin, a childhood sexual abuse survivor and leader in the fight against sexual abuse, appears “on behalf of rape and sexual assault survivors to ask you not to confirm Sen. Sessions as attorney general.”
9:47 — Peter Kirsanow, the longest-serving member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, defends Sessions against attacks that have, Kirsanow says, “mischaracterized and distorted” the nominee’s record. For those unfamiliar with Kirsanow, a black conservative attorney from Cleveland, the Washington Times has a pretty good profile here. It explains the mustache and the death stare.
9:46 — Oscar Vasquez, who arrived in the United States as as a child and an undocumented immigrant, worked his way through Arizona State University, joined the military, served in Afghanistan, and is now a U.S. citizen. He is against the Sessions nomination.
9:45 — First up: Mike Mukasey, who served as George W. Bush’s final attorney general (2007-2009). He’s in favor of Sessions. Likes him. Qualified.
9:44 — Looks like we’ve got a long lineup of witnesses ready to go. They’re lined up pro-con, pro-con, pro-con. We’ll try to move through their opening statements quickly.
9:42 — Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse makes a statement declaiming “the effort to push nominees into hearings” before their background ethics checks have been completed. “The ramming of unvetted nominees” and the strategy of stacking hearings (today’s marquee hearing is actually happening in another room, where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering Rex Tillerson for secretary of state), Whitehouse says, “creates an unfortunate new precedent in the Senate.”
9:41am EST — Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair, opens the second day of hearings by announcing that the testimony of Sessions yesterday “convinced me” that he should be confirmed. “We know Sen. Sessions is up front with you,” Grassley says. “When he says he will do something, he will do it.”
9:31am EST — Good morning! Now that America has increased its word power—kompromat, can’t wait to use it in conversation—we’re looking forward to a full day of fresh witnesses who will speak in favor of, and against, the nomination of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions for U.S. Attorney General.
Yesterday, Sessions deflected the few difficult questions put to him, and he looks to be an easy lock for confirmation by the full Senate. We still have a day of witnesses ahead of us, though, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, whose appearance is highly anticipated.
6:14 — Chuck Grassley, mercifully, calls the first day’s proceedings to a close. That’s it, we’re done, see you back here at 9:30am tomorrow morning. Remember to pack a lunch.
5:51 — Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono is emerging as one of the real ass kickers of this committee. After the award B.S., Hirono brings the hearing straight back to one of the most pressing serious issues in America today: Police actions and accountability. She asks Sessions about the DOJ’s ongoing consent decrees with 20 police departments around the United States. Consent decrees are agreements reached between DOJ and a police department that require the department to enact serious reforms, following a pattern of abuse or other unconstitutional behavior. They are one of the few mechanisms available to cities and their citizens to force police reform. Sessions has spoken out in the past against consent decrees, and his opposition to them gives you a hint about why so many police organizations and unions have lined up to support Sessions. Hirono asks Sessions: Will you uphold these decrees? Sessions says yes, he will, but then goes on about his worries that consent decrees “create the impression that the entire police department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to fairness and the law.” Which is an amazing statement to make. Because the purpose of consent decrees is to force police departments to improve after they’ve been shown to, in fact, fail to do their work consistent with fidelity to fairness and the law. Sessions’s main concern isn’t for the citizens abused by their police officers. It’s for the emotional well being of the police officers, who might feel a tiny bit ashamed about the consistent pattern of illegal actions taken by their department. For more on consent decrees, see The Marshall Project’s report here.
5:38 — Chuck Grassley ends the silliness over the Horowitz award by grabbing the mic and saying, in so many words: Look. We’re senators. We all get dozens of bullshit awards every year, we toss ’em in a storage locker somewhere outside of Sioux City and forget we even “won” them. Okay? Okay.
5:27 — Wait, what? How did David Horowitz enter the conversation?! Sen. Blumenthal accuses Sessions of accepting a 2014 award from the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which is seen in some circles as being an anti-Muslim organization. Fun fact: Horowitz, a famous leader of the New Left in the 1960s, converted to the neoconservative cause in the 1980s. Funner fact: During the late 1980s, Horowitz appeared alongside essayist Christopher Hitchens on Lewis Lapham’s PBS books show. The argument grew heated, and continued in the hall after the show. The two men nearly came to blows. Hitchens ended it by spitting on Horowitz and storming out of the building. It was not The Hitch’s finest moment.
5:17 — Delaware Sen. Coons asks Sessions if he would be in favor of a national registry of Muslims. Sessions: “No. I would not favor that.”
4:57 — Franken on fire! “Okay, here’s the thing,” he says. Franken proceeds to school Sessions on the Voting Rights Act, why it was necessary, why it’s still necessary today, and how Texas, North Carolina, and other states have and continue to actively work to suppress the African-American vote. Point, Franken.
4:52 — Franken rescues himself by connecting his earlier statement to the problem of voter suppression, which is often justified by claims of voter fraud without any evidence. A federal court recently ruled that this sort of operation in North Carolina specifically targeted African Americans, with the goal of keeping them from voting. Sessions: “You cannot create laws designed to prevent any class of citizens from exercising their right to vote.” He says he’s not familiar with the details of the ruling and the North Carolina law. Which, if true, is actually one of the most damning pieces of evidence against Jeff Sessions we’ve heard today.
4:49 — Oh, save us Baby Jesus. Sen. Franken is back with his fact-checking seminar. Now he’s asking Jeff Sessions to defend one of Donald Trump’s factless statements. Which one? It doesn’t really matter. There are so many. Basically, it sounds like Franken is intent on proving that Donald Trump says untrue things. Which, sadly, at this point in American history is like observing that Donald Trump has funny hair.
4:45 — Sen. John Cornyn of Texas raises privacy and national security issues. Wants Sessions’ verbal commitment to “put the safety and security of the American people first.” This seems like a backhanded way of countering Patrick Leahy’s effort to exact a pledge from Sessions to follow the law when it comes to wiretapping, phone records and data collection. Then, confusingly, Cornyn follows up with a question defending the Freedom of Information Act and “the public’s right to know.” We understand nothing about John Cornyn.
4:32 — Sen. Klobuchar, noting that Backpage.com shut down its adult advertising section yesterday, asks Sessions about the problem of sex trafficking. Sessions says the fight against sex trafficking will be “an important part of the Department of Justice’s priorities,” and he looks forward to making “a real impact on this abominable practice.”
4:26 — Cruz snarkily challenges “our friends in the media” to cover the story of Sessions overseeing the prosecution of two KKK members in an Alabama murder case. Dude, please. Google “Jeff Sessions KKK murder case.” You’ll find page after page of links to coverage: Time, WeeklyStandard, DailyBeast, CNN, Fortune, Washington Monthly, The Atlantic, The Hill, Salon, USA Today, ABC News. How much more coverage can Cruz’s friends in the media give this story?
4:23 — Ted Cruz reappears to commend the committee’s Democratic members for refraining from asking Sessions difficult questions. Even Cruz’s tie is offensive. Seriously.
4:18 — That sound you just heard were hundreds of millions of eyes popping upon hearing Jeff Sessions utter a defense of facts and truth: “Truth is not sufficiently respected.” Whether you voted for Trump or Clinton, at this point it is ridiculous to argue that Trump did not gain votes, and thus power, from the dissemination of “fake news” on social media. And fake facts from the mouth of President-elect Trump himself. Senator, please.
4:15 — Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse raises concerns about the targeting of Obama-era staff members of the Department of Justice. Sessions: “To target people, and demean them, if they were fine public servants and carrying out the law, that would be wrong.”
4:11 — Whether you’re for him or against him, one thing is emerging today: Jeff Sessions is a lock for confirmation. The only thing that could sink him now is an Anita Hill-size surprise witness. There are plenty of witnesses lined up for tomorrow’s hearing, but none of that stature, with that kind of bombshell. That we know of.
3:57 — Sen. Grassley gives everybody a 15-minute break. See you back here at 4:15. We’re gonna run out to Jiffy Lube and change the awl in our car.
3:49 — Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, the newbie, makes a joke about his name, which is probably the bazillionth time he’s made that joke. And it’s not a very good joke. Al Franken could punch it up in about ten seconds. Kennedy thinks he’s going to be remembered as The Other John Kennedy, but after today he’s going to be remembered as that senator who takes the word Muslim and tangles it into “Moose-limb.”
3:44 — Sen. Feinstein asks about a report in today’s Washington Post about some mineral rights Sessions owns in Alabama This gives Sessions the opportunity to pronounce the word oil as “awl” a number of times, which is mildly pleasing. Otherwise nobody cares about the oil rights under a duck refuge in some backwater county in Alabama.
3:14 — Hatch’s performance here sent a shock of memory through the old noggin. Yes, as a matter of fact it was Orrin Hatch who defended Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas against the testimony of Anita Hill way back in 1991. Let me see if I can find the video…
3:13 — Sen. Orrin Hatch offers Sessions, metaphorically, a personal service that is best enjoyed in private among consenting adults. Good lord. Too bad Hatch is unable to muster the vigor to put difficult questions to a nominee appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
3:13 — MORE CANNABIS. Sen. Mike Lee follows up with a question about federalism. “We’ve seen new attention paid to it,” he says, “but in the limited area associated with marijuana.” Did the way the Obama administration handled marijuana legalization sit well with you, in terms of both federalism and the separation of powers. Did the DOJ’s decision to not prosecute cannabis sellers and consumers in legalized states “contravene the understanding that Congress is the lawmaking body?”
Sessions responds: “One obvious concern is that Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state an illegal act. If that is not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change it. It’s not the attorney general’s job to decide which laws to enforce. We should enforce the laws as effectively as we are able.”
This is correct in theory, but in practice the Department of Justice has limited resources, and its leaders decide which areas of law to emphasize and which cases to prosecute, and which to ignore. That applies to federal cannabis laws just as much as it does to insider trading laws, banking laws, antitrust laws, and other areas where large room for prosecutorial discretion exists.
3:08 — CANNABIS ALERT! Leahy gets to it: “Regarding states rights. states have also voted on the issue of marijuana. Your own state of Alabama permits a derivative of marijuana known as CBD oil. Which is legal in Alabama, but illegal under federal law. If you are confirmed as the nation’s chief law enforcement official, you know we have very limited federal resources. Would you use our federal resources to investigate and prosecute sick people who are using marijuana in accordance with their state laws?”
Sessions answers: “I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law. But absolutely, it’s a problem of resources for the federal government. The Department of Justice under Lynch and Holder set forth some policies they thought were appropriate regarding states that have legalized in some fashion.” He added that there has been criticism of those policies, “some of them are truly valuable, but fundamentally the criticism that I find legitimate is that they [the Cole memo guidelines] may not have been followed. Using judgment in how to handle these cases will be mine, and I will do it in a fair and just way.”
Leahy: “In the past you have called for the death penalty for second-time marijuana offenders.”
Sessions: “That doesn’t sound like something I’d normally say.”
Leahy: “Would you say that’s not your view today?”
Sessions: “That is not my view today.”
3:01 — Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, appearing today in the role of Grand Old Man of the Senate, takes over. Sen. Leahy brought his sharp knives. He proceeds to show his junior colleagues how it’s done. (Al Franken, take note.)
2:53 — Utah Sen. Mike Lee asks Sessions about the use of guidance documents. “Will the Department of Justice use guidance documents as a matter of course?” This is an important issue w/r/t cannabis legalization, as the DOJ’s Cole memo, issued by then-Attorney General Eric Holder, allowed adult-use legalization to proceed in Colorado and Washington state. “A guidance document can be beneficial,” Sessions says. But “a guidance document cannot amend the law. Bureaucrats do no have the ability to rewrite the law to make it say what they’d like it to say. Congress makes the laws, not the executive branch.”
2:48 — Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono asks about immigration and abortion. “The problem as I see it with Roe v. Wade is it denies people the right to enact the laws that they feel appropriate,” says Sessions.
2:06 — Oh, Lordy. Ted Cruz is in the house. Sen. Cruz, upon taking control of the microphone, proceeds to show the nation exactly why he is famously the most hated member of the Senate among his fellow senators. Cruz, alone among the committee members, uses the platform to grandstand and foment, slamming all of his Democratic colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee for going along, “silently,” with the Obama administration when the White House disregarded the rule of law. It’s a real stemwinder. The look on Jeff Sessions’ face is priceless. It’s as if he’s watching a full grown man burst into church and launch into a drunken rant against the pastor, the choir director, and every usher in attendance. For the record: Sen. Cruz does not appear to be drunk.
1:59 — We’re back! Invigorated by a hearty lunch, Delaware Sen. Christopher Coons addresses Alabama’s abysmal record of prisoner mistreatment, including the use of chain gangs and the “hitching post,” which is not used to tether horses, up until the far too recent past. Sessions punts on the gruesome hitching post detail, but says “I think good employment of a prisoner is a healthy thing.” He adds, “I do not favor this kind of work,” referring to chain gangs. Coons also addresses Sessions’ opposition to sentencing reform, despite clear evidence of the racial disparities inherent in things like mandatory minimums and three strikes laws. The nominee then alarmingly connects his claimed “rise in crime” with the idea that “sentences are down 19 percent already.”
1:11 — Surprise move by Chairman Grassley, who calls a quick 30-minute recess for lunch. Back here at 1:39 sharp, people. Your tardy slips won’t save you.
1:03 — Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who will be played in the movie by Jeff Daniels, softly asks about border security and puts in a plug for his state’s program on same. Nothing to see here. Moving on.
12:59 — Parson Grassley tells everyone that Sunday school will continue for another hour. (!!!) We’ll roll straight through to 2:09, then break for lunch, then reconvene at 2:39. Apparently everyone on the committee will be dining at Jimmy John’s today. Freaky fast, people.
12:50 — Sen. Franken (D-SNL) goes with the proven losing strategy known as Fact Check The Nominee To Death. Memo to Al: It never works. Franken tries to pin Sessions on his claim that he brought “20 to 30” civil rights cases as a US attorney. But there weren’t that many, were there? Sessions laughs: “It was extraordinarily difficult to get a record by checking the docket sheet by checking exactly how many cases were involved.” Water off a duck’s back. Franken presses Sessions on his claim to have “personally handled” on voting rights cases and desegregation cases. Franken is technically correct here, but politically it’s not a huge winner. “It was 30 years ago, and my memory was my support for those cases,” says the nominee. Point, Sessions. The 99 percent of Americans who are neither lawyers nor fact checkers for The New Yorker will side with the Alabama gentleman on this one.
12:47 — Al Franken! Finally! The senator from Minnesota takes the mic.
12:43 — Sen. Ben Sasse, who gets our vote for the handsomest man in Nebraska, asks Sessions whether there are instances in which it is appropriate to not enforce a certain law. If we had a CANNABIS ALERT alarm we could ring, we would ring it now. But Sessions avoids that part of it, preferring instead to apply the question to the issue of immigration. His answer was so vague and inconclusive that it failed to stick in any portion of anybody’s brain. We will have to move on.
12:41 — Just a reminder, folks: Ted Cruz and Al Franken are both members of this committee, and their turns on the mic should be coming up soon. So there may be greater entertainment ahead.
12:37 —Klobuchar is trying hard to pin Sessions on issues of concern re civil rights and voting rights, but it seems like her ingrained Minnesota urge to politeness and civility prevents her from going full Ted Kennedy on her former colleague. To see how it’s done properly, when required, take a couple minutes and check out Kennedy’s successful effort to defeat Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination back in 1987.
12:32 — Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar tries to put Sessions’ feet to the fire on the Voting Rights Act, and voter ID laws that aimed at depressing the vote by people of color. Sessions punts to the usual “there’s going to be debate about that” and says Congress and the courts must settle those issues. Of course, the Department of Justice decides which cases to prosecute, when there are Voting Rights Act violations. So it does fall under his responsibilities. “I think voter ID laws, properly drafted, are OK,” Sessions says.
12:27 — Coming up on hour three of these hearings. Sessions, like a great starting pitcher, seems to only grow stronger in the later innings. He’s actually enjoying himself. Which isn’t that surprising, given the relatively soft nature of the questions. They haven’t been completely uncritical, but nobody’s grilled him with tough followups. Remember: Everyone on this Senate committee served with Sessions as their colleague on this very committee up until, oh, about seven hours ago.
“You said that so-called low level nonviolent offenders simply do not exist in the federal prison system.”
11:38 — Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) addresses the nation’s drug laws for the first time today. Seven years ago he and Sessions co-sponsored the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the outrageous disparity between sentencing guidelines for crack and powder cocaine. Durbin criticizes Sessions for not going further and pressing to have the act applied to people currently serving those outrageous sentences for crack. “You said that so-called low level nonviolent offenders simply do not exist in the federal prison system,” says Durbin. They do exist, Durbin insists. And they are continuing to suffer under those draconian drug laws. Sessions defends himself by saying that he doesn’t want to “upset finality in the justice system.”
11:27 — Sessions is asked about Guantanamo Bay. He answers: “It’s a safe place to keep prisoners. We’ve invested a lot of money in that, and it should be utilized in that fashion.” Not sure that sunk economic cost is the best way to defend Gitmo, but at least now we know his position. Meanwhile, the mention of Gitmo sparks a gallery shouter. Sessions revisits his water glass.
11:25 — US Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) takes the microphone to praise college football. Well played, senator. Courage.
11:10 — Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah makes it clear what really matters in his home state: Porn! He wants pornography treated “as a public health issue.” He tells Sessions he wants the Department of Justice to re-constitute a specific unit to prosecute obscenity laws. Sessions seems taken a little by surprise. He was unaware that DOJ had disbanded its obscenity flying squad. Presumably because nobody but Orrin Hatch pays attention to the pressing national crisis surrounding the lack of obscenity law prosecutions.
10:54 — Sessions pledges to recuse himself from any potential investigation of Hillary Clinton, her emails, and the Clinton Foundation.
10:52 — Sen. Grassley takes a shot at the Obama administration for failing to “perform fundamental functions of law.” Not sure if this is partly in reference to cannabis laws and the Cole memo. But it sure sounds like it. Sessions: “Once passed, I will do my dead level best to assure a law is fairly and properly enforced.”
10:47 — Sen. Grassley asks Sessions if he’s going to be Trump’s “wingman.” Well? Are ya? Sessions: “No.” Grassley: “Will you be able to stand up and say no to the President of the United States if the law and your duty demands it?” Sessions says he will.
10:41 —Sessions directly addressed the Marion Three controversy. “These are false charges,” he says. The voter fraud case “was in response to please from African Americans.” As to the KKK, Sessions says, he “abhors” the group and its “hateful ideology,” and points to his work on a KKK murder case, which ended in a life sentence for one Klan member and a death sentence for another.
10:30 — The nominee hits a number of notes that lay out his priorities. Illegal drugs “flood across our southern border, bringing violence, addiction, and mayhem.” Police officers across the nation find themselves “unfairly maligned and blamed” for the unacceptable actions of a few bad actors. “Morale has suffered. Last year the number of police officers killed in the line of duty increased by 10 percent over 2015.” Local law enforcement officers “must know they’re supported” by the federal government. Strengthening federal-local police ties and relationships will be “one of my priority objectives.” Pledges to protect Americans from the “scourge of radical Islamic terrorism,” thereby formally using the contentious phrase.
10:29 — Sessions raises something that sounds like it will be a theme of his this week: a rise in the national crime rate. “A four percent increase in all crime,” he says. “Murders increasing 11 percent,” with outrageous numbers of shooting victims in Chicago and Baltimore. “The country is also in the throes of a heroin epidemic,” he says.
10:27 — Another gallery shouter. Another pause and sip. Could be a lot of hydration going on this morning.
10:26 — Sessions is interrupted by a gallery shouter. “No Trump, no KKK!” Security takes care of it. Sessions calmly pauses, takes a sip of water.
10:22 — Microphone back on. Sessions introduces rest of his family. He has children and grandchildren. They look like fine people. Sessions declares that he is proud of his grandchildren. Sounds like they all had a great time at the beach this summer. Moves on to politics. Notes that every major law enforcement group has endorsed him.
10:21 — Sessions begins by introducing his family. His microphone is not working. A senate staff audio-visual technician is about to get fired.
10:20 — Jeff Sessions arrives for his opening statement. You’ve seen him. The man looks like a delightful elvin grandfather. He’s rocking a beautiful gray suit, a red tie, and snowy white hair.
10:15 — Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) takes the baton from Shelby. She likes Sessions “as a trusted collegue, and personally as a good friend.” Vouches for him as “a person of integrity, a principled leader, and a dedicated public servant.”
10:01 — Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby formally introduces Sessions. Tells his hometown story. It’s heartwarming.
9:55 — Feinstein makes first mention of the Marion Three case. Much more of that to come later in the day. Good backgrounder on the case in The Nation.
9:50 — Sen. Dianne Feinstein expresses many reservations. “The attorney general must put aside loyalty to the President;. He must assure that the law and the Constitution comes first and foremost, period.”
9:31am EST — Sen. Chuck Grassley, rocking his inimitable 1920s parson style, gets the party started. The committee chairman assures everyone that there is no set closing time.“I’m prepared to stay here as long as members have questions they’d like to ask,” he says. Not sure if this is reassuring or ominous.
Grassley makes it clear that he’s a friend of Jeff Sessions, and intends to move him through the confirmation hearing quickly and cleanly. “We’re here today to review the character and the qualifications of a colleague who has served alongside us in the Senate for twenty years. We know him well.” Sessions, says Grassley, “is wonderful to work with. We know him to be a man of his word.”
Grassley makes a point of mentioning Sessions’ role in prosecuting a KKK member for murder. The Atlantic has a good backgrounder on that here.