By Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky
WASHINGTON - Senate Judiciary Committee members on Tuesday sparred over whether Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., can operate independently of the president if confirmed as attorney general - a debate that took on new importance after President Donald Trump’s late-night firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates for refusing to defend his immigration order.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee’s chairman, asserted that Sessions will “follow the law, regardless of whether he would have supported it as a matter of policy as a senator.” He said Sessions offered no help in drafting Trump’s order, though it is “not clear to me why it would be a problem even if he had been involved.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member, attacked Trump’s order and noted that Sessions’ ideals seem to have at least shaped it. She read out loud from Yates’ memo declaring she did not find Trump’s immigration order to be lawful, then referenced the so-called Saturday Night Massacre, when two top Justice Department officials resigned over an order from President Richard Nixon.
“Members, that statement took guts,” Feinstein said. “That statement said what an independent attorney general should do. That statement took a steel spine to stand up and say no. It took the courage of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus, who stood up to President Nixon. That is what an attorney general must be willing and able to do. I have no confidence that Senator Sessions will do that.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee was to vote on the Sessions nomination to become attorney general later Tuesday morning.
Trump replaced Yates with Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who said he would enforce the president’s directive to temporarily ban entry into the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world.
The committee is expected to approve Sessions’ nomination, but the hearing is likely to last hours as Democratic senators speak out about Trump’s decision Monday night and his nomination of Sessions to serve as the nation’s chief law enforcement official. If moved out of committee, Sessions’ nomination could be voted on by full Senate by the end of this week.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he will vote against the nominee because of concerns about Sessions’ civil rights record, his failure to address Russia’s interference in the November presidential election and ethical conflicts in the Trump administration, among other issues. He took aim Tuesday at Trump’s firing of Yates, saying the president had “placed the independence of the Justice Department at stake.”
“I’ve said and I believe the president’s decision to fire acting attorney general Sally Yates is shameful,” Leahy said. “His accusation that she betrayed the Department of Justice is dangerous. The attorney general is the people’s attorney, not the president’s attorney.”
On the first day of his confirmation hearing, Jan. 10, Sessions sought to assure senators that he could fairly enforce the law as attorney general, and he said repeatedly during that day’s eight-hour grilling that he would not let his personal views interfere with his duties. He said he would abide by Supreme Court decisions on abortion rights and legalized same-sex marriage, although he opposes both. And Sessions said he would recuse himself from any Justice Department investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email practices or her family’s charitable foundation - issues he raised while campaigning for Trump.
On the hearing’s second day, several civil rights leaders spoke against Sessions, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., broke with tradition by testifying as a sitting senator against a colleague. Booker said he believed that as attorney general, Sessions would not defend voting rights or the rights of LGBT Americans.
Appearing on the nominee’s behalf, Michael Mukasey, a former federal judge who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush, testified that Sessions is “thoroughly dedicated to the rule of law and the mission of the department.”
Ron Hosko, president of the nonprofit Law Enforcement Action Network and former FBI assistant director, sent a letter in support of Sessions to the Judiciary Committee on Monday and said 20,000 members or supporters of the law enforcement community were backing his nomination.
“Sen. Sessions enjoys great respect from law enforcement officials across the country who believe the nation will be well served by his confirmation,” Hosko said.
But no Democrat on the committee has declared an intention to vote for Sessions, and Democrats are increasing efforts to delay the confirmation of several of Trump’s Cabinet nominees.
Sessions, who last February became the first senator to endorse Trump, has long been known for hard-line views on immigration. Many of Trump’s executive orders have been prepared by his senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, who previously worked for Sessions.
In an email to The Washington Post, the president’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, said Sessions is “the clearinghouse for policy and philosophy” in Trump’s administration.