Jeff Sessions took a surprise trip to South Carolina last week at the behest of the Senate’s only black Republican. His allies talk up how Sessions locked arms with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. And the senator, in a lengthy nominee questionnaire delivered this month, practically depicts himself as a civil rights hero.
When the Senate takes up President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to be the nation’s next top law enforcement official in January, allegations of racism that have dogged Sessions for three decades running are certain to be his biggest liability. So he and his allies have mounted an aggressive public relations campaign to refashion Sessions’ image.
The core message: The charges that sank Sessions’ bid to become a federal judge in 1986 don’t represent who Sessions is now, or even who he was at the time. Delivering it is a lineup of prominent black leaders and others with personal ties to Sessions enlisted by Trump’s transition team.
“He knows all of my brothers and sisters,” said one of the character witnesses, William Huntley, who worked under Sessions in the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. Huntley, now a lawyer in Mobile, Alabama, said in an interview that he’s never encountered racial insensitivity from Sessions in the three decades they’ve known each other.
“He came to the hospital when my first child was born,” Huntley said. “He has come to birthday parties at my house.”
Liberal outside groups are unmoved. Alarmed by what they view as a weak legislative record on voting issues, gay rights and immigration policy, Sessions’ opponents are trying to litigate a broader case against him rather than focus solely on the racism questions.
“Yes, it happened a long time ago. It’s certainly not irrelevant and it has to be raised,” said Christopher Kang, a former deputy counsel to President Barack Obama who now serves as national director for the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans. But “it has to be examined in the context of his entire career.”
Sessions, who appeared with Trump at a rally in Alabama on Saturday, has forcefully denied accusations of racism ever since they prompted the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee to reject him for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench. During the lengthy testimony, senators heard from a former black deputy to Sessions that Sessions once told him to “be careful what you say to white folks” and that Sessions said he was fine with the Ku Klux Klan until he found out its members used marijuana.
Trump’s transition team and Sessions’ allies have tried to cast doubt on the 10-8 committee vote against him. They point out that the late former Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican on the committee at the time who later switched parties, said he long regretted voting against Sessions’ confirmation. The transition team is also emphasizing Sessions’ record of working on bipartisan bills during his time in the Senate.
Democrats, who lowered the confirmation threshold for nearly all nominations three years ago, are powerless to stop Sessions assuming no Republicans vote against him.
But Trump’s team and friends of the 69-year-old senator are taking no chances. In speeches on the Senate floor and comments to the media, top GOP senators who’ll be influential in the confirmation fight have set out to douse the racism allegations before they have a chance to derail Sessions once again.
Source: Politico | SEUNG MIN KIM and NANCY COOK