Glim­mers of hope at Ses­sions ses­sion

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - Dana Mil­bank Colum­nist

Colum­nist Dana Mil­bank com­ments about the con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for the U.S. at­tor­ney gen­eral nom­i­nee.

Two men in white sheets and hoods stood on chairs in the Rus­sell Build­ing cau­cus room sec­onds af­ter Jeff Ses­sions en­tered for his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing.

“Jef­fer­son Beau­re­gard, I’m here for you,” one called out in a fake South­ern ac­cent, us­ing the at­tor­ney gen­eral nom­i­nee’s proper name. The heck­ler thanked the Alabamian “for be­ing with us.”

Ses­sions smiled. Po­lice de­scended on the men and dragged them from the room. “You can’t ar­rest me — I’m a white man,” one shouted. “Do I have to wait un­til the in­au­gu­ra­tion?”

The protests in the au­di­ence con­tin­ued through the morn­ing and into the af­ter­noon. Some 15 heck­lers, white, black and brown, were led out af­ter call­ing the nom­i­nee a racist and a “fas­cist pig” and chant­ing “No Trump, no KKK, no fas­cist USA!” One woman was led out by no fewer than four Capi­tol po­lice of­fi­cers for the of­fense of laugh­ing when Ses­sions was praised for “treat­ing all Amer­i­cans equally.”

But if the ac­tivists were ex­pect­ing Ses­sions to live up to his rep­u­ta­tion, they would have been dis­ap­pointed. The man in the wit­ness chair sounded more MLK than KKK.

What Ses­sions said at his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing did not al­ways align with what he had said and done in the past. It may not com­port at all with what he will do as at­tor­ney gen­eral. But, at least for a day, Ses­sions took pains to present him­self as in­of­fen­sive. He did per­haps more than he needed to, be­cause the Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity on the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee — a com­mit­tee on which Ses­sions sits — gave ev­ery sign that they will con­firm their col­league.

Ses­sions promised to re­cuse him­self from de­ci­sions in­volv­ing the Hil­lary Clin­ton emails and the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion. He said he would re­spect le­gal abor­tion and same-sex mar­riage, and he ac­knowl­edged that women and gay peo­ple are vic­tims of hate crimes. Un­like his new boss, he said Mus­lims as a group could not be de­nied en­try into the United States, and he didn’t dis­pute the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s find­ings that Rus­sia in­ter­fered in the elec­tion.

He said the ad­min­is­tra­tion would not seek to de­port all im­mi­grants here il­le­gally. He op­posed wa­ter­board­ing. He pledged to en­force gun and en­vi­ron­men­tal laws. He said the NAACP does “tremen­dous good.” He called the Vot­ing Rights Act “one of the most im­por­tant” laws, em­braced “proper def­er­ence to the news me­dia” by pros­e­cu­tors and boasted about work­ing with Ted Kennedy.

“The Depart­ment of Jus­tice must never fal­ter in its obli­ga­tion to pro­tect the civil rights of ev­ery Amer­i­can, par­tic­u­larly those who are most vul­ner­a­ble,” Ses­sions said, promis­ing to “en­sure ac­cess to the bal­lot for ev­ery el­i­gi­ble voter.” The nom­i­nee said he would honor the “prom­ise that our govern­ment is one of laws, not of men.”

Those as­sur­ances may amount to noth­ing. But for those who fear that Don­ald Trump will run roughshod across the fed­eral govern­ment, the nom­i­nee’s tes­ti­mony of­fered a slim hope that he will pro­vide at least some brake on the new pres­i­dent’s worst in­stincts.

Note­wor­thy, too, is the way Ses­sions and the Trump tran­si­tion team de­cided to han­dle his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing. Ses­sions didn’t men­tion Trump in his open­ing state­ment other than to thank him for the nom­i­na­tion. And even be­fore sen­a­tors ques­tioned him about the al­le­ga­tions of racism that led the GOP-con­trolled Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee to re­ject his nom­i­na­tion to the fed­eral bench in 1986, Ses­sions pre-emp­tively de­fended him­self against “damnably false charges.”

The sen­a­tors, even Democrats, were al­most all gen­tle in ques­tion­ing their col­league, and Ses­sions ac­tively avoided ar­gu­ments. He op­posed the Vi­o­lence Against Women Act in 2013 but now says the law “has many pow­er­ful pro­vi­sions that I’m glad [were] passed.”

Ses­sions said it was “very painful” to be iden­ti­fied as a racist. He said he saw “sys­tem­atic and pow­er­ful” racism in the South. “I know we need to do bet­ter,” he said. “We can never go back.”

Does he be­lieve that? We’ll see. For now, it’s a small com­fort that he felt the need to say it.

Dana Mil­bank is syn­di­cated by The Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

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