Jeff Sessions, the longtime U.S. senator from Alabama and likely next attorney general of the United States, said all the right things at his Senate confirmation hearing this week. He assured the Judiciary Committee of his reverence for the Constitution and commitment to the rule of law. He pledged “fairness, impartiality and equal justice.” He promised not to be “a mere rubberstamp,” avowing that he – like any man or woman who holds the office of attorney general – “must be willing to tell the president ‘no’ if he overreaches.”
In his responses to questions from members of the committee, Senator Sessions repeated those promises and distanced himself from the heat of the presidential election. He said that if he is confirmed, he will oppose some of President-elect Donald Trump’s most controversial campaign promises, including the use of torture tactics barred by Congress, a registry of Muslim residents of the U.S. and a religion-based ban on entry into the country. Sessions told Patrick Leahy of Vermont that he believes grabbing a woman’s genitals without her consent is sexual assault and told Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut that he would consider appointing an independent prosecutor to investigate presidential conflicts of interest if the circumstances warranted.
Sessions pledged over and over that if he is confirmed to head the Justice Department, he will enforce laws he voted against as a senator. “As attorney general, you have to follow the law,” he said. “You have to be consistent and you have to be honorable in your decision-making.”
Sessions’ promises failed to convince Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who broke Senate tradition to testify Wednesday about his Alabama colleague’s civil rights record, or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who announced Thursday that he will vote against Sessions’ appointment. The Senate is nevertheless expected to confirm Sessions as attorney general by a comfortable margin.
And then he will have to keep his promises.
Senator Sessions has served the public for almost the entirety of his legal career, according to the questionnaire he submitted to the Judiciary Committee. Except for three short stints as a private lawyer, he spent most of his time in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Mobile, where he was an assistant in the 1970s and the chief prosecutor from 1981 to 1993; and in the U.S. Senate, to which he was elected in 1997, after two years as the attorney general of Alabama. (In 1986, as you probably recall, Sessions failed to win Senate confirmation as a federal trial judge.)
Sessions explicitly said in his testimony that the office of U.S. attorney general “is not a political position, and anyone who holds it must have total fidelity to the laws and the Constitution of the United States.” History shows, however, that high-ranking Justice Department officials sometimes pay a political price for loyalty to the law. In 1973, President Richard Nixon’s AG, Elliot Richardson, resigned rather than obey Nixon’s order that he fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. Nixon ousted Cox and Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan’s Deputy AG Arnold Burns and Criminal Division head William Weld resigned from Justice to protest the leadership of Attorney General Ed Meese, who was at the time under scrutiny for alleged ties to a tainted military contractor. (Meese was never charged with a crime.) Attorney General John Ashcroft resigned after President George W. Bush’s first term, in part, according to the Washington Post, because he contested the legality of some of the Bush administration’s responses to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mortal clashes between AGs and the presidents they serve are not inevitable. Janet Reno served as President Bill Clinton’s attorney general for eight years. Eric Holder was President Barack Obama’s AG for six years.
But President-elect Trump’s international business ties, lack of political experience and mercurial style (assuming he does not change when he is sworn into office) are all potential headaches for Sessions. As the CEO of a private company, Trump is accustomed to quick responses to his orders. The law does not usually move at Donald Trump’s pace.
As AG, Jeff Sessions must not be cowed by a boss famous for firing contestants on a reality television show. Confirmation hearings may be little more than Washington’s own version of reality TV but I hope Senator Sessions will take his soliloquy about the independence of the attorney general and his commitment to the rule of law seriously.