WASHINGTON ― Senate Democrats on Tuesday delayed the confirmation of Alabama Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to be the next attorney general of the United States, just hours after President Donald Trump fired the acting attorney general for defying his administration.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was expected to advance Sessions’ nomination to the full Senate on Tuesday. But Democrats on the committee, starting at 9:30 a.m., spoke at length about their opposition to Sessions and their admiration for former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired by Trump late Monday night. The committee vote on Sessions will now be held Wednesday.
Yates sent a memo to Justice Department employees on Monday instructing them not to defend Trump’s executive order on immigration from Friday. Yates said she was “not convinced” the order was lawful, though she noted that DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel had cleared the language of the order as properly drafted.
Hours later, Trump fired her. Yates was cleaning out her office at Justice Department headquarters late into the evening. Dana Boente ― a career lawyer who had served as the top federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia ― was sworn in late Monday. He immediately rescinded Yates’ memo.
At the hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Yates showed what an independent attorney general does. “That statement took guts. That statement said what an independent attorney general should do. That statement took a steel spine,” Feinstein said. “I have no confidence that Sen. Sessions will do that.”
“He is the wrong person for this job,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). He said that given what happened Monday night, the vote was “a constitutional moment.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Yates’ letter was in the “highest traditions of the Department of Justice.” He said he wasn’t sure Sessions would stand up to the president, as Yates had.
The message that Trump’s firing of Yates sent to Justice Department employees, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said, was “check your independent judgment at the door, and get in line.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) allowed Democrats as much time as they desired to voice their opposition to Sessions, even as it meant delaying the vote to advance his confirmation by a day.
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who served until the end of the Obama administration, also praised Yates’ move on Tuesday.
“With her decision not to defend the executive order regarding immigration, Sally Yates displayed the fierce intellect, unshakeable integrity, and deep commitment to the rule of law that have characterized her 27 years of distinguished service to the Department of Justice under both Democratic and Republican administrations,” Lynch said in a statement.
“Her courageous leadership embodies the highest traditions of the Department of Justice, whose first duty is always to the American people, and to the Constitution that protects our rights and safeguards our liberties,” Lynch said.
Yates declined an interview request relayed to her as she was packing up her office on Monday night, and a former aide who was assisting her with media requests said she would not be giving any interviews on Tuesday.