The best defense is a good offense. Jeff Sessions knew what was coming, and decided to pre-empt it before it got rolling. In an impromptu addition to his prepared remarks, the nominee for Attorney General ripped accusers for painting a “damnably false” caricature of him as a racist, and reminded the Senate Judiciary Committee that he prosecuted Klan members as a US attorney:
Sessions: I will ensure civil rights protections for African-Americans, women and LGBT people if attorney general https://t.co/eNEbpB1Ly7
— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 10, 2017
Deviating from his prepared remarks, Sessions addressed the allegations that sank his bid for the federal judiciary in 1986 — accusations that ran the gamut from making racially improper comments to not protecting voting accessibility for black voters in a high profile voter fraud case. He was also accused of being sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan.
“These are damnably false charges,” Sessions told the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “The voter fraud case my office prosecuted as in response to pleas from African-American, incumbent elected officials.”
Noting that he prosecuted a KKK member who murdered a black teenager, Sessions added: “I abhor the Klan and what it represents and its hateful ideology.” In later questioning, Sessions addressed the racism allegations again,
“The caricature of me in 1986 was not correct,” Sessions said, his voice rising. “I do not harbor the kind of animosity and race-based discrimination ideas that I was accused of. I did not.”
If Sessions got blindsided in his unsuccessful 1986 confirmation hearing to the federal bench, he wasn’t going to allow it to happen again. A good trial attorney knows to get potential land mines out of the way immediately and under his or her own control, especially one that was obviously going to be deployed again. That statement won’t convince Sessions’ die-hard opponents, but it might give some red-state Democrats enough cover to vote for his confirmation under the principle that an elected president should receive deference on his nominations absent any real obstacles.
Susan Collins (R-ME), not exactly a conservative stalwart, gave Sessions a ringing endorsement on character and fair play, hailing him as “a dedicated public servant and a decent man”:
Sessions was prepared for questioning as well. During the question and answer later, Sessions emphasized that he saw “systematic” racism as a Southerner, and that he wanted to ensure that it never returned:
I just want you to know that as a Southerner who actually saw discrimination and I have no doubt it existed in a systematic and powerful and negative way onto the people, great millions of people in the South, particularly of our country, I know that was wrong and I know we need to do better. We can never go back. I am totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen and I will assure you that that’s how I will approach it.
There’s not much more that Sessions can say or do than this testimony. He did defend voter-ID laws against allegations that they are used to restrict legal voting, but said he’d follow the federal law as Congress passes it and the courts uphold it. That won’t endear him to activists who are already arrayed against him, but it’s worth remembering that voter-ID laws have widespread support among voters in the US. There are few issues with as much consensus in the electorate, and trying to “other” Sessions over it is likely to backfire big time with people who see it as common sense.
At any rate, the outcome of this exercise is guaranteed. Sessions will get confirmed with at least 52 votes, and might get as many as 60, although that’s more of an outside estimate. Sessions might remain a lightning rod for far-Left attacks on the Trump administration, but Sessions won’t lose sleep over it.