The White House badly wants Jeff Sessions to take the helm of the Justice Department, but Democrats are mounting an all-out war to stop him from becoming attorney general for as long as they can.
It’s likely Sessions will be confirmed by the Senate late next week. But every day of delay is another day President Donald Trump is without a prominent defender of his more incendiary moves.
As long as Democrats delay, Sessions, now a Republican senator from Alabama, can’t be all over social media and television explaining Trump’s order to temporarily bar immigrants and some others from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering this country. Or why it’s worthwhile to launch an investigation of voter fraud, even though previous Justice Department have found repeatedly no such abuse exists on a large scale.
The Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday took the first step towards confirmation, approving Sessions by an 11-9 party line vote.
A few hours later, Democrats previewed the sort of Senate turmoil that awaits him. They tied up the Senate with lengthy procedural votes that delayed the confirmation of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York vows similar efforts for most until Republicans agree to overturn, or at least ease, Trump’s immigration action.
Trump’s Monday firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates added another outrage to the Democrats’ list. Trump sacked Yates for refusing to defend his order. The White House, in a statement, said she “betrayed the Justice Department” and was “weak on borders and very weal on illegal immigration.”
Schumer was incensed. “We saw last night that it is also the duty of our nation’s chief law enforcement officer to support and defend the Constitution when the president’s actions do not,” he said Tuesday. “”The attorney general swears an oath to the Constitution, not to a president.”
Sessions was an early, vocal Trump supporters during the campaign, and his ardor bothered Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, top Judiciary Committee Democrat.
“It is very difficult to reconcile for me the independence and objectivity necessary for the position of attorney general with the partisanship this nominee has demonstrated,” she said.
Sessions’ nomination is no ordinary fight. The Trump White House and its allies have a battle plan of their own, which includes targeting potentially vulnerable Democratic senators who face re-election in 2018. Ten Democrats up for re-election now represent states Trump won.
Sessions, like all nominees, gets an administration team to help him through the process. It includes seasoned Republican operatives who help prepare for questions. In this case, that included former Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, a center-right lawyer respected on Capitol Hill.
Nominees also get help in dealing with the media. In this case, Keith Appell, a public relations senior executive for a Virginia-based firm that often represents conservative clients, has been helping Sessions. He routinely sends out emails to reporters touting Sessions’ achievements and endorsements.
After the judiciary vote, Appell sent out a missive that included “The Jeff Sessions I Know” by Richard Stacy, a U.S. attorney for Wyoming under President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Stacy talked about their longtime professional relationship, and pledged “ he will encourage vigorous, but fair law enforcement – without regard to race, creed or political affiliation.”
Sessions has an advantage in the process in that he’s an incumbent senator. He’s been a senator for 20 years, and has served on the judiciary committee. There was no need to set up a separate war room to monitor his progress, since Sessions could plot strategy in his Senate office.
Because Sessions was not only a senator but knew the confirmation process well, he needed less guidance from the Trump administration.
While his courtly demeanor has made him well-liked among Democrats and Republicans, he’s also been an outlier at times, notably on immigration. He’s been one the Senate’s most vocal advocates for reducing immigration – legal and illegal – and was one of Trump’s closest advisers on the subject during the presidential campaign. He was an early supporter of Trump at a time when few in Congress went along.
While Senate Democrats lambaste Sessions on the floor, outside groups plan to agitate against his confirmation. The NAACP, which has met with senators and held protests against Sessions’ nomination, said they plan to ramp up their efforts further next week.
“Letters have already gone out to senators on both sides of the aisle, raising our issues and concerns,” said Hilary Shelton, head of the NAACP’s Washington bureau. “The pressure will continue.”
White House officials and Sessions supporters are ready to vigorously respond. The National Rifle Association said it will make his confirmation a “key vote” on its legislative scorecard, a move designed to put pressure on incumbent Democrats in states that Trump won.
Notably vulnerable are Jon Tester of Montana, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
Tester and Donnelly enjoyed A ratings from the NRA in their 2012 Senate runs and the organization didn’t spend much money opposing Heitkamp in 2012. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Montana by 20.5 points, by 19 points in Indiana, and by 36 points in North Dakota.
In addition, the NRA, through its lobbying arm, is running ads supporting Sessions.