Far right Sessions confirmed as US attorney general in partisan duel
Trump’s nominee cleared in Senate after controversial motion to silence Senator Warren
WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Senate confirmed US President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general Wednesday, capping an ugly partisan fight and revealing how deep the discord has grown between Republicans and Democrats at the dawn of Trump’s presidency.
The chamber voted 52 to 47 on Wednesday evening to clear Senator Jeff Sessions, whose record on civil and voting rights as a federal prosecutor and state attorney general has long been criticised. Sessions won confirmation almost exclusively along party lines. Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) was the only Democrat who supported him, and no Republican voted against him. Sessions voted present.
In remarks after his confirmation, Sessions mentioned the “heated debate” surrounding him and said he hoped "the intensity of the last few weeks" would give way to better relations in the Senate.
Trump’s victory came after a bruising confirmation process for Sessions and other Cabinet nominees, which Democrats have used to amplify their concerns about the president’s agenda even as they have fallen short of derailing any nominees.
These proxy battles have generated friction in the traditionally cordial upper chamber, as revealed Tuesday evening when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, rebuked Senator Elizabeth Warren, accusing her of breaking a Senate rule against impugning a fellow-senator’s character and blocking her from speaking for the remainder of the Sessions debate.
In doing so, McConnell asserted his control over a legislative body that is increasingly at risk of veering from normal protocol. But he also sparked a backlash, with accusations of sexism and selective use of an obscure Senate rule bouncing around social media for much of Wednesday.
Ahead of the final vote, Democratic senators arrived one after another in the chamber Wednesday to criticise McConnell, particularly for this statement late Tuesday: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Outside the Senate, liberals gleefully thanked McConnell for elevating Warren, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest stars, and handing her a slogan for a potential 2020 presidential bid.
“I think Leader McConnell owes Senator Warren an apology,” Senator Bernie Sanders said in a floor speech Wednesday. He and Democrats were particularly chagrined that a Senate rule could be invoked to block criticism of someone who is up for confirmation before the body.
Warren unleashed a tweetstorm of displeasure following Sessions's confirmation Wednesday night, saying the new attorney general - and the GOP senators who supported him — will hear from her and "all of us" if Sessions makes "the tiniest attempt" to bring "his racism, sexism & bigotry" to the Justice Department. She said all senators who voted to put Sessions's "radical hatred" into power would hear from the opposition. "Consider this MY warning: We won't be silent," Warren tweeted. “We will persist.”
While Democrats couldn’t block Sessions’s confirmation, there may have been other upsides to the fireworks: rallying their liberal base by demonstrating a willingness to fight Republicans and publicly scrutinise Trump’s team.
The flare-up over Warren’s remarks began as she attempted to read a statement by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., in opposition to Sessions’s 1986 nomination for a slot as a federal district court judge. The letter accused Sessions of using his role at the time as a US attorney to undermine voting rights.
“Mr Sessions has used the awesome power of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters,” wrote King, who died in 2006.
Several Democrats took to the Senate floor Wednesday to reread a portion of that statement in solidarity with Warren.
DOUBTS AND CONCERN
Democrats’ concerns about Sessions’ record on civil rights and voting rights coincide with broader concerns about Trump on the same front. They have expressed alarm about Trump’s ban on refugees and foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, currently tied up in court, and about his unsubstantiated assertions of massive voter fraud in the election.
Sessions became Trump’s sixth Cabinet-level nominee to win confirmation, putting him well behind the pace of President Barack Obama in 2009. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump in February 2016, and his conservative views have shaped many of the administration’s early policies, including on immigration.
In his confirmation hearing last month, Sessions repeatedly vowed to put the law above his personal views. He said he would abide by the Supreme Court decision underpinning abortion rights and a court ruling legalising same-sex marriage.
Sessions has repeatedly declined to say whether he would recuse himself from an investigation involving Trump associates or possible links to Russia's interference in the presidential election; he said he would seek the recommendations of ethics officials and "value them significantly" in making a decision.
Herald with The Washington Post, AP