During Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions once again testified before the Senate and the world and endured hours of their questioning. The Senators asked questions on a bevy of topics, and AG Sessions answered each and every one – except those which might fall under the president’s executive privilege, of course.
Immigration, the Border Wall, and Trump’s Travel Ban
The first item covered in the prepared testimony was a validation of the president’s travel ban. AG Sessions began by recounting what he had heard from sources in the military regarding the defeat of ISIS. According to his sources, we shouldn’t expect a decrease in terrorist activity, but perhaps an increase instead.
He explained the Justice Department’s support of the ban:
“The president’s executive order is an important step to ensuring that we know who is coming into our country. It’s a lawful, necessary order that we are proud to defend. And indeed – most may not know – the Supreme Court has already vacated one court’s injunction against that order. We are confident it will avail in the Supreme Court.”
Sessions then went on to explain that most of the dangerous drugs flowing into the U.S. come across the southern border, “bringing violence, addiction, and death.” He averred that that the wall was a necessary step in securing the line between the States and Mexico, and halting not only the flow of illegal aliens, but of illegal substances as well.
He gave President Trump credit for sending a clear message on illegal immigration to the nation and the world. Illegal immigration has been reduced by nearly half – without the wall, without the ban, and with sanctuary cities still in existence!
The Rule of Law vs. The Rise in Violent Crime
Perhaps at the prompting of the committee chair, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Sessions explained the drastic and unparalleled rise in violent crime in the last of the Obama years:
“We know, colleagues, that violent crime is rising after almost 30 years of decline. For two years in a row, we’ve seen the fastest overall increase in violent crime in 25 years.”
He then said that the president had called on the DOJ to reduce crime in America, and that “We have heard that challenge. We embrace it, and we are setting about to do something about it.” Sessions ensured the members of the committee that the DOJ has a plan, and that if they simply stick to it, the nationwide crime rate will begin to decline once again.
AG Sessions declared that the DOJ would faithfully enforce the laws that the Congress makes, as empowered by the Constitution. On the subject of DACA, he explained that Obama’s order was unconstitutional, as it ended up being a blanket policy rather than a temporary option available on a case-by-case basis. He then explained that Congress now had the chance to make history by legislating – that is how the Constitution demands laws be made, after all – a DACA substitute.
As is always the case, the Jeff Sessions hard line on crime and “I don’t make the rules; I just enforce ‘em” attitude stepped on more than a few toes. Several Democratic Senators found themselves quite enraged by the Attorney General’s stance on sanctuary cities and LGBT rights.
Federal Funding Isn’t an Entitlement
If one mere sentence could seal the fate of all sanctuary cities in the country, it would be the AG’s simple explanation before the Judiciary Committee:
“Grant funding is not an entitlement, but an allocation of taxpayer dollars.”
Multiple Senators tried to push the sanctuary city issue, but none more vehemently than Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). Amidst accusations of singling out the city of Chicago and trying to force them to take on the work of ICE, Durbin managed to introduce an interesting program the city would like to fund.
The funding that Chicago won’t get as a sanctuary city would pay for Shot Spotter, a high-tech initiative the city wants on every block to instantly alert police as soon as a shot is fired. Like many other cities across the country, it’s illegal to discharge a firearm within the limits of Chicago – and understandably so.
Sessions didn’t touch the new program, however. He merely cleared up the single most absurd allegation made by sanctuary city politicians yet: that the DOJ requires them to go out and arrest illegals. Sessions explained that he wasn’t asking Chicago PD to make one single additional arrest – only that when they do arrest an undocumented person, to hold them and call ICE so that they can be deported if that’s what they’re due. The illegals would already be in police custody – for committing some additional crime. Is a phone call really that much to ask? And are the streets of Chicago and other cities really not safer if a violent criminal is removed from the city?
But, love it or hate it, the law is the law. As Senator John Neely Kennedy (R-LA) said:
“This is America. You can believe what you want. But it is my understanding that you still have to follow the law.”
Equal Rights for All Under the Law
The senior committee member, Senator Feinstein (D-CA) prodded Sessions before his testimony by quoting him from his confirmation hearing: “I will ensure the statutes protecting the LGBT community’s civil rights and their safety are fully enforced.” She was happy to hear that, she said, but now is concerned and confused to find that AG Sessions actually didn’t seem to mean those words. After all, he took the stance that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t necessarily protect LGBT employees in all situations. This is, of course, the official stance of all but a few federal courts, and is, therefore, the law for now. Sessions explained this when questioned about it later, but the Senator just couldn’t seem to understand that one federal court disagreeing constituted an extreme minority, not a shift in the established interpretation.
Senator Feinstein did give him credit for sending a hate crime specialist to Iowa to assist the prosecution in a case in which a transsexual teen was murdered. However, she was confused by the fact that, to Sessions, at least, there’s a big difference in making special considerations for certain people in laws regarding employment and letting a murder go unaddressed.
And of course, every Democrat who mentioned the travel ban incorrectly called it a Muslim ban in an attempt to take the high road on religious freedom – not exactly the same stance they tend to take when someone wants to deny an LGBT individual some service when doing so violates their religion.
Sessions covered all these issues and more in his testimony:
“Every American, regardless of race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation, must be safe from violence and criminality. We will not shy away from defending First Amendment rights. We stand ready to enforce federal law, to protect the right to speak and assemble peacefully, and to defend the free exercise of religion.”
The Russian Collusion
At the top of many Senators’ minds was, of course, any involvement Jeff Sessions might have had in dealings with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. Republicans and Democrats alike wanted to know more than Sessions was able to tell them.
A few Republicans, interestingly enough, asked very direct questions about who to contact in the DOJ and how to go about contacting them to get information from the previous administration. After Comey’s bombshell revelations during his Senate hearing, the right side of the aisle is finally digging into Obama and Clinton. Senator Grassley specifically asked about allegations of bribery, extortion, and money laundering by Russians. He was concerned about the alleged involvement of Secretary Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton’s $500,000 speech in Moscow, and all the Russian money that went to the Clinton Foundation just before Russia ended up in control of 20% of U.S. Uranium mining operations.
The Democrats, of course, focused more on trying to trick Sessions into admitting guilt, either of directly colluding with the Russians or simply to lying about his involvement. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) drilled Sessions mercilessly about lying to him. He talked about how Sessions said that he had not had any contact with any Russians, but then later said that he hadn’t discussed policy with any, and even later changed that and said that he hadn’t discussed Russian interference with any Russians. The problem, of course, is that each of the three answers were to different questions!
Leahy’s original question, to which Sessions replied in the negative, was this:
“Several of the president elect’s nominees or senior advisors have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?”
As you can see, that’s a very leading and specific question – certainly not the “simple question” Leahy wants to portray it as. But that’s alright; AG Sessions got him back. As if Senator Leahy wasn’t irate enough, Sessions shut him down entirely when asked whether or not Special Counsel Mueller had interviewed him in the course of his investigation. After some hemming and hawing over whether Sessions should answer the question, he finally gave the Senator – with a smile on his face, of course – a simple “no.” Leahy was taken aback, but tried again. Much to his consternation, the answer remained no.
Of course, as the Democrats and Republicans alike asked more questions about Russia, Trump, and Comey, they hit that old executive privilege wall.
Executive Privilege: The Ultimate Trump Card
The big expectation of the day, of course, was that after the Democrats of the committee had put Sessions on notice that he had better consider carefully the idea of executive privilege, he would simply open up and answer all of their questions. Well, he did consider it:
“I have considered this request very respectfully. It’s an important matter. But consistent with longstanding policy and practice of the Executive Branch, I can neither assert executive privilege nor can I disclose today the content of my confidential conversations with the president. Under the administration of both parties, it is well established that a president is entitled to have private, confidential communications with his cabinet officials.”
All Democratic smiles slowly began to dissolve. Though there was much hostility directed his way afterward, Sessions did not budge. Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) quoted the Reagan clarifications for executive privilege, which allows officials to ask an abeyance to ask the president whether or not he’ll assert the privilege. Whitehouse then pointed out that not only was that abeyance not permanent but that the AG could actually disclose whatever he wants, so long as the president hasn’t already asserted the privilege. But still, Sessions would not cave. He even chided the Senators and asked them how they would feel if someone demanded they reveal the contents of their private conversations with their staff.
More to the point, Sessions explain that no single Senator of the Senate Intelligence Committee has followed through with any of their questions to see if Sessions would answer them later.
Much Ado About Nothing
Otherwise, most of the five hours consisted of Democrat drama. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) actually whined for several minutes about how it wasn’t fair that other people got more time than him, so, of course, he ended up with over 13 minutes – the longest of anyone else and nearly twice the seven-minute limit.
Perhaps even more impressive, though, was Senator Klobuchar (D-MN), who attacked the election integrity commission on the grounds that a staffer had been caught with child pornography. Her concern? Why, that the staffer might have access to vulnerable minors through the voter data. It really makes you wonder, with the legal voting age in the U.S. being 18, how many voting minors helped elect her?
Despite a lot of clear partisan showboating – from both sides – and some executive privilege almost-but-not-quite asserting, we did learn quite a bit from this exercise. Sessions has not been investigated by Robert Mueller. He stands by his claim that he did not in any way collude with the Russians, and that neither did anyone else from the Trump campaign so far as he knows. And, finally, at least the Republicans of the Senate Judiciary Committee are actively investigating the Clintons for what appears to be their own Russian collusion.