WASHINGTON ― More than 30 years after concerns about his views on race derailed his judicial nomination, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was confirmed as the 84th attorney general of the United States on Wednesday.
The vote broke down mostly on party lines, with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin crossing the aisle to vote with 51 Republicans against 47 Democrats. Sessions voted present.
It came nine days after President Donald Trump fired the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, who said Justice Department lawyers would not defend the president’s executive order on immigration and refugee resettlement. A federal appeals court heard arguments about the executive order on Tuesday night.
With Republicans in control of the Senate, Sessions’ nomination was never really in serious jeopardy. He was opposed by many civil rights groups, who have concerns about his record on voting rights and hate crimes. And after Trump fired Yates, many Democrats doubted Sessions would stand up to Trump, especially on immigration issues where Sessions was a vocal support of Trump.
Democrats knew they could not halt Sessions, but dragged out the confirmation as long as they could, in hopes of highlighting for the public all the aspects of Sessions’ record that they object to.
Indeed, lacking the votes to stop any of Trump’s nominees other than for the Supreme Court, the minority party has resorted to aggravating the GOP with stalling tactics and bringing as much attention as they can to what Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has called the least qualified cabinet in history.
“These nominees are so far afield from what President-elect Tump promised, from what candidate Trump promised, and even President Trump promised … that we think that they demand a full, full vetting,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday. “I think it’s greatly weakening President Trump’s ability with the American people because he’s not doing what he promised.”
The tactic produced at least one high-profile moment during the floor debate over Sessions’ nomination on Tuesday night. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) read a letter from Coretta Scott King opposing Sessions’ judicial nomination back in 1986, prompting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to invoke a rarely used rule to shut her down. It sparked a furor that angered women and civil rights advocates, and elevated the opinions King expressed against Sessions to a much broader audience.
Among other things, King had written that when Sessions was a U.S. attorney in Alabama, he “used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”