When Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, went before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, he saw plenty of familiar faces. Sessions, after all, has been a senator for the past two decades. But in this week’s confirmation hearings, the senators were tasked specifically with evaluating his suitability to serve as the nation’s top law enforcer, not to evaluate his record as a lawmaker, as they were frequently reminded by the committee’s chairman, Chuck Grassley, who like Sessions is a Republican.
To that end, Democratic senators repeatedly asked Sessions whether he’d enforce laws, including ones he didn’t agree with and didn’t vote for. And in a marathon Tuesday hearing, Sessions consistently said “yes”: If something is the law of the land, it will be his job as attorney general to enforce it, whatever his views and whatever Trump’s. Notably, Sessions said that as attorney general, he would oppose torture, a ban on Muslims entering the country and a Muslim registry, three things for which Trump has at times expressed support.
In reality, though, attorneys general prioritize some areas of enforcement. So to the extent that the hearings revealed Sessions’s policy priorities, that should tell us something about how the Justice Department will function for the next four years. (Sessions, who is from Alabama, is highly likely to be confirmed, judging by the tepid nature of criticism from some Democrats on the committee.) Here’s a quick roundup of what we learned — and didn’t — about Sessions’s record and views on some crucial criminal-justice issues:
Data: In recent years, President Obama’s Justice Department has taken steps to better count and gather data on the deaths of people in police encounters. The topic didn’t come up much in the Sessions hearings, but in his prepared testimony, Sessions suggested that others’ attention to police-involved deaths has unfairly cast police officers in an unfavorable light. “In the last several years,” Sessions said, “law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the actions of a few bad actors and for allegations about police that were not true.” He mentioned that the number of police officers killed in the line of duty increased last year by 10 percent from 2015, but not that the number of civilians who die in encounters with police officers is far higher.
Sessions might be more interested in Justice Department efforts to improve the collection of crime data. He cited the increase in murders nationwide — and noted that the most recent FBI murder data is from 2015. (Big cities’ numbers show an increase in murder in 2016 that is similar in magnitude to the nationwide increase in 2015.)
Police. Sessions is a big supporter of officers. “They must know that they are supported,” he said. “If I am so fortunate as to be confirmed as attorney general, they can be assured that they will have my support.” His nomination was widely and enthusiastically supported by police-officer groups. In Wednesday morning’s panel, Chuck Canterbury, president of the police union Fraternal Order of Police, praised Sessions for his general pro-police stance. But Canterbury also cited more specific efforts that Sessions has made in the Senate: his co-sponsoring of a bill that gives Capitol-flown flags to survivors of police officers who die in the line of duty and his support of police departments’ sharing in the assets seized in civil forfeiture, a practice that has been criticized by people on both the left and the right. Sessions also said that criticism of local police forces has weakened departments and increased crime. (Proactive policing has decreased and violence has increased in some cities, including Chicago and Baltimore, that have experienced protests after high-profile police-involved deaths, although what’s causing those trends is unclear.)
Civil rights. “I care about civil rights,” Sessions said. “I care about voting rights.” Sessions has cited his record as evidence. In 2009, he said that he’d been involved in 20 or 30 desegregation cases as a prosecutor, and this year, he told the Judiciary Committee that four civil-rights cases were among the 10 most important cases he’d worked on in his career. Some committee members were skeptical. Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota said Tuesday that Sessions had overstated his role in anti-segregation litigation.
This is an area where the administration’s priorities will matter: The number of anti-discrimination and voting-rights cases brought by the Justice Department’s civil rights division dropped sharply under President George W. Bush compared with his predecessor, Bill Clinton. The Voting Rights Act, backed by civil-rights groups as a way to protect black voters, recently moved closer to Sessions’s personal beliefs. When a 2013 Supreme Court ruling weakened the law, Sessions said it was “good news … for the South.” On Tuesday, Sessions called the act “intrusive.”
For Sessions’s time in the Senate, the NAACP gave him an average score of just over 10 out of 100, in a measure of how well members of Congress carried out the group’s legislative priorities. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, suggested Wednesday to NAACP President Cornell Brooks that the group was fundamentally biased against Republicans and conservatives and would have trouble finding any Republican nominee for attorney general it approved of. Brooks said the scores were based strictly on how congressional votes affect the group’s policy goals.
Violence against women. Committee members and other witnesses criticized Sessions for his negative comments during the 2012 debate about the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which among other things expanded protection to victims of violence into tribal lands. (Sessions was one of 22 senators who voted against a version of the act in 2013.) On Tuesday, Sessions affirmed his opposition to violent acts against women. They also criticized him for saying last fall that the acts Trump described on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape didn’t constitute sexual assault. Sessions said on Tuesday that grabbing women by the genitals is assault.
Gun prosecutions. Sessions is a longtime and enthusiastic supporter of efforts to use federal laws to prosecute local gun crime cases in order to secure tougher sentences in distant federal prisons. He cited two such programs — Triggerlock and Project Exile — in Tuesday’s hearing. During the presidential campaign, Trump endorsed Exile, which has also drawn support from the National Rifle Association. Its record in reducing gun violence, however, is unproven.
Immigration. Sessions expressed disapproval of Obama’s efforts, through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, to prevent deportation of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Peter Kirsanow, who was appointed by Bush to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and supports Sessions’s nomination, testified on Wednesday that reducing immigration is a matter of fairness to black people, citing research that suggests immigration hurts black employment. (Other research disagrees.) That might be a preview of arguments that Sessions’s department could make for stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws.