February 1, 2017

Whitehouse Votes ‘No’ on Sessions in Judiciary Committee

“The opening days of [the Trump] administration have been a gong show, but a gong show with a nuclear button. This dangerous state of affairs puts all of President Trump’s nominees in a new light.”

Washington, DC – Today, during a business meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) voted against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to serve as U.S. Attorney General. 

“Senator Sessions has a long history of demonstrated, open hostility for bedrock civil rights laws, and failed repeatedly to vigorously distance himself from extremist hate groups that hold him up as a champion of their perverse ideologies,” said Whitehouse in a prepared statement at the Committee meeting. 

The Judiciary Committee approved Sessions’ nomination in an 11 to 9 vote.

Whitehouse’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below.  Video of Whitehouse’s remarks is available here.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

The Attorney General of the United States holds a vital and somewhat unique position in the federal government, tasked with significant responsibilities that must be executed independently — sometimes even in defiance of the White House’s wishes and interests.  The Attorney General is tasked with enforcing our laws fairly, justly, and even-handedly—as well as with protecting the civil and Constitutional rights of all Americans.  The Attorney General does not work for the President so much as for the people; and does not serve the administration, but the law.

I have served in The Department of Justice, and I have felt its esprit de corps and its pride, as exemplified when Attorney General Ashcroft resisted White House pressure on warrantless wiretaps.

The Department of Justice is well aware of the importance of its independence, and a successful Attorney General must be stalwart in protecting the Department from political meddling by the Administration or Congress.  We need only look back to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s resignation to recall what can happen when an Attorney General yields to political pressure.

The Attorney General also makes policy decisions about where and how to direct the Department’s $27 billion budget, and when and how to advise Congress to recommend new laws and modify existing policies.  Policy choices an Attorney General makes can have a profound effect on individuals, communities and the fabric of our nation.  And they allow the Attorney General wide discretion, this is not just a matter of saying that he will follow the law.

Americans should be able to trust that their Attorney General will not only enforce the laws with integrity and impartiality, but stand up for Americans of all stripes and fight on behalf of their rights.

That’s the prism through which I evaluate Senator Sessions’ nomination.  I have known the Senator for a decade and have enjoyed working with him on legislation.  But, the standard by which I evaluate an Attorney General nominee is whether Rhode Islanders can trust that his commitment to doing justice and ensuring equal protection of all Americans will be real and lasting, and not just a matter of nomination etiquette.

I have reviewed Senator Sessions’ career as an attorney and as a Senator, as well as his testimony before the Judiciary Committee.  I have reflected on my duties and experience as Attorney General and U.S. Attorney in Rhode Island.  I have also listened closely to very strong and serious concerns from Rhode Islanders, who have made it plain that they fear what Senator Sessions would do as head of the Justice Department.  For every constituent of mine who has expressed support of his nomination, fifteen have expressed opposition.

Senator Sessions’ record is clear:

He fought against fixing our immigration system, as the leading opponent of bipartisan legislation which, had it passed, would have spared us the current debate over an ineffective $16 billion border wall.

Senator Sessions fought against our bipartisan criminal justice and sentencing reform.

He opposed reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, a bill which is vitally important to the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office and the anti-domestic violence groups in our state.  I suspect that Senator Sessions’ opposition related to the bill’s inclusion of protections for gay and lesbian couples, and his record on support of gay and lesbian Americans is alarming to many Rhode Islanders.

Public statements and confirmation testimony by Senator Sessions suggest that he brings a religious preference to the Department, that “secular” attorneys would be to him a suspect class compared to Christian attorneys. From the state of Roger Williams, founded on freedom of conscience, this is an alarming consideration.

He has, on numerous occasions, used racially charged or downright offensive rhetoric to belittle broad groups of Americans, including, for instance, Rhode Island’s wonderful Dominican community. Saying that Dominicans come to this country basically to sponge and be useless. Well, tell that to Big Papi, David Ortiz, and the Red Sox fans of New England.

He walked those statements back in the nominations process, but again, one must wonder if this represents a true conversion rather than a nod to nomination etiquette, akin to Justice Roberts’s howler about being a neutral judge who would just “call balls and strikes.”

We have been burned by nomination etiquette before.

Senator Sessions has a long history of demonstrated, open hostility for bedrock civil rights laws, and failed repeatedly to vigorously distance himself from extremist hate groups that hold him up as a champion of their perverse ideologies. Senator Sessions has called Breitbart News a “bright spot.”  Breitbart has published countless baseless and inflammatory articles, with titles like:

  • Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy;
  • There’s No Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews; and
  • Gabby Giffords: The Gun Control Movement’s Human Shield

Senator Sessions has promised that as Attorney General he would, “work diligently to ensure that all Americans receive equal protection under our laws,” but his record creates justifiable alarm among many Rhode Islanders that his promise is more a product of nomination etiquette than a nomination epiphany.

In fairness, I should disclose that Senator Sessions’ nomination carries additional baggage with me as the nominee of this President and this White House.

On the campaign trail, the American people witnessed Donald Trump glorify sexual misconduct against women, mock a disabled reporter, and make disparaging remarks about immigrants and minorities, all with no pushback from Senator Sessions.  We all witnessed chants of “lock her up,” which Senator Sessions did not push back against, and even excused in his hearing as “humorously done.” In mass rallies that also featured beatings, and the press caged and vilified, this didn’t seem very “humorous” to many Americans.

Americans know that the good guys in the movie are not the ones in the mob.  The good guy is the lawman who stands on the jailhouse porch, and sends the mob home.  That chant was un-American, and across the country it made honest prosecutors’ stomachs turn.

Not surprisingly, many Americans are fearful of what the Trump Administration will mean for them, for their families, and for their country.  Senator Sessions had so many opportunities to push back; and he availed himself, prior to his nomination, of none. 

The problems did not end with the campaign.  President Trump and his family have brought more conflicts of interest to the White House than all other modern Presidents and families combined.  The proposed Trump domestic Cabinet is an unprecedented swamp of conflicts of interest, failures of disclosure and divestment, and dark money secrets.  The Trump White House traffics in “alternate facts,” operates vindictively, and is a haven for special interest influence — and they’re just getting started. None of this is good. All of this suggests that there will be more of less constant occasion for investigation and even prosecution of this administration.

In recent history, only Attorneys General Gonzalez, Meese and Mitchell have been as politically close to their President as Senator Sessions would be, and the Gonzalez, Meese, and Mitchell tenures did not end well.  I fear that unless publicly boxed in, Attorney General Sessions’ default position would be to protect the Administration. The Department’s public corruption work is ordinarily done within the secrecy of investigative privilege, particularly in the early stages where the go/no go decisions are made, so the pressure of publicity will ordinarily not be available. 

Let me add a word about climate change, which is a matter of grave concern to me and to Rhode Island, our Ocean State. Climate change presents readily discernible truths on one side and a massively polluting industry that wants to deny them on the other side. Senator Sessions has persistently refused to discern those readily discernible truths and unfailingly lined up with that massive polluting industry. As a signal about how, as Attorney General he would handle conflicts between truth and power, this is an ominous one.

Recent events put these concerns into particularly sharp focus. The refugee order that the President has issued highlights the problems we face over Senator Sessions’ nomination. On a bipartisan basis, experts have concluded that this will harm our national security. As has been reported in the media, a group of more than one hundred former national security heavyweights from both political parties protested Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees in a letter last Monday. “This order not only jeopardizes tens of thousands of lives,” they wrote, “it has caused a crisis right here in America and will do long-term damage to our national security.” “Simply put,” they concluded, “this order will harm our national security.”

In addition to being a substantive backfire, the order was a procedural botch. As reporters have disclosed, Trump and his aides kept GOP congressional leaders almost completely in the dark about the most consequential act of his young presidency, a temporary ban on refugees and on anyone from seven majority Muslim nations. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly fumed privately to associates over the weekend because they had been caught unaware. It became evident that the rollout of the executive order bordered between clumsy and dysfunctional. Even on Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough said the weekend was a disgrace. On Capitol Hill, many Republicans close to leadership were frustrated that they received little to no guidance or advanced notice about Trump’s immigration and refugee directive.

The opening days of this administration have been a gong show, but a gong show with a nuclear button. This dangerous state of affairs puts all of President Trump’s nominees in a new light. As conservative columnist David Brooks has written, “Many Republican members of Congress made a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump. They don’t particularly admire him as a man, they don’t trust him as an administrator, they don’t agree with him on major issues, but they respect the grip he has on major voters…. But if the last ten days have made anything clear is this, Republican Fausts are in a tenable position. The deal they’ve struck with the devil comes at too high a price. It really will cost them their soul. Even if Trump’s ideology were not noxious his incompetence is a threat to all around him. To say that it is amateur hour at the White House is to slander amaturists. The recent executive orders were drafted and signed without any normal agency review or any semi-coherent legal advice, filled with elemental errors that any nursery school student would have caught.” I am continuing with David Brooks’ words here. “It seems that the Trump administration is less a government than a small clique of bloggers and tweeters who are incommunicado with the people who actually help them get things done. Things will get really hairy when the world’s problems are incoming. Third it’s becoming increasing clear that the aroma of bigotry infuses the whole operation and anyone who a lines too closely will end up sharing in the stench. Forth is it hard to think of any administration in recent memory, on any level, whose identity is so tainted by cruelty. The Trump administration is often harsh and never kind. It is quick to inflict suffering on the eight-year-old Syrian girl, who has been bombed and strafed and lost her dad. Its deportation vows mean that in the years ahead TV screens will be filled with weeping families being pulled apart. None of these traits will improve with time.” As former Bush administration official Elliott Cone wrote in the Atlantic, quote “Precisely because of the problem is one of temperament and character it will not get better. It will get worse as power intoxicates Trump and those around him will probably end in calamity.” David Brooks concludes, “Trumps first ten days in office have made clear that this is not a normal administration. It is a problem that demands a response. It is a callous, bumbling group that demands either personal loyalty or the axe. With most administrations you can agree sometimes and disagree other times but this one is a danger to the party and the nation in its existential nature and so sooner or later all will have to choose which side they are on, and live forever after with the choice.”

I ask unanimous consent that the full article be added at the conclusion of my remarks on the record. So it is increasingly getting to be stand up time here in Congress. Nominees have to meet a higher standard when a White House traffics in alternative facts, is caught up in conspiracy theories, uses threats and bullying as a means of exercising its will, and is riddled with conflicts of interest. As David Brooks said this is not a normal administration. He did not mean this as a compliment. For all of these reasons, I think that we need a more independent Attorney General of the United States than Senator Sessions is likely to be, and I yield back any remaining time.


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