A History Lesson on Jeff Sessions

Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III emerged as a recent figure of public attention in Feb. 2016, when he became the first sitting US Senator to endorse Donald Trump’s presidential bid. One of Trump’s “earliest and most loyal supporters,” the former Alabama senator served as a crucial link between Trump and the Republican establishment, galvanizing support from within the Party and helping to craft the campaign’s national security policy.

Sessions was described affectionately by Trump as a “highly respected member of the U.S. Senate” and a “world class legal mind…Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him.”

On Feb. 8, 2017, after 30 hours of debate, the Senate confirmed Sessions’ appointment to the office of US Attorney General, which has been controversial since it was first announced. In January of this year, a sit-in in Sessions’ Mobile office protesting his nomination ended in the arrest of 6 members of the NAACP, including its President, Cornell William Brooks.

During the Senate debate in February, Senator Elizabeth Warren read from a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, opposing Sessions’ appointment to a federal judgeship:

“‘Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts,'” Warren read. She was accused of impugning Sessions on the Senate floor and was forced to sit down.

In order to understand the danger of putting Jeff Sessions in charge of upholding civil rights, and why he has consistently received “F” ratings from civil rights groups like the NAACP, one should to know the history of his career-long opposition to voting rights.

Indeed our Attorney General has done everything in his power to oppose the Voting Rights Act and to make voting more difficult for disenfranchised black voters. One of the most notable instances of this, and that which King refers to in her letter, was a 1985 “voting fraud” case in which Sessions falsely prosecuted black political activists. In Nov. 2016, The Nation reported:

“In the Democratic primary of Sep. 1984, FBI agents hid in the bushes at the Perry County post office, waiting for Albert Turner and fellow activist Spencer Hogue to mail 500 absentee ballots on behalf of elderly black voters. When Turner and Hogue left, the feds seized the envelopes from the mail slots. Twenty elderly black voters from Perry County were bused three hours to Mobile, where they were interrogated by law-enforcement officials and forced to testify before a grand jury. Ninety-two-year-old Willie Bright was so frightened of “the law” that he wouldn’t even admit he’d voted.

In January 1985, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the 39-year-old US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, charged Turner, his wife Evelyn, and Hogue with 29 counts of mail fraud, altering absentee ballots, and conspiracy to vote more than once. They faced over 100 years in jail on criminal charges and felony statutes under the VRA—provisions of the law that had scarcely been used to prosecute the white officials who had disenfranchised blacks for so many years.

The trial was held in Selma, of all places. The jury of seven blacks and five whites deliberated for less than three hours before returning a not-guilty verdict on all counts.”

In 1986, just four months after the travesty of that unsuccessful conviction, Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions for a federal district judgeship—a lifetime appointment requiring Senate confirmation—and was vetoed by the Senate Judiciary Committee for dubious prosecution of civil rights activists and testimony by former colleagues about racially insensitive comments Sessions had made while acting as US Attorney in Mobile.

Former assistant US Attorney and deputy to Sessions Thomas Figures told Congress that he had been admonished by Sessions to be careful about what he said “to white folks” after getting into an argument with a white colleague.

Figures also provided details of a conversation Sessions had with two fellow prosecutors over a particularly gruesome case, a retributory abduction and lynching of a young black man by two members of the Klu Klux Klan. MUpon finding out that the KKK members had smoked marijuana on the night of the murder, Sessions purportedly said that he thought the KKK was “okay, until I found out they smoked pot.”

Gerry Hebert, a colleague of Sessions’ in the Department of Justice’s Voting Section, testified that Sessions had called the NAACP and ACLU “Communist-inspired” and “un-American,” and labeled the white civil-rights lawyer Jim Blacksher “a disgrace to his race.”

Sessions admitted at the Senate Committee hearing, ”[I] may have said something about the N.A.A.C.P. being un-American or Communist, but I meant no harm by it.”

Sessions has “meant no harm” in spending his career opposing voting rights. That includes cheering when the VRA was gutted in 2013 and awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the foot soldiers of the Selma movement while working to destroy the measures many of them died fighting to instate. But it doesn’t stop at threatening civil rights: Sessions could also pose a potential threat to national security. With rumors about Russian influence in Washington abounding since the beginning of Trump’s presidential bid, Sessions’ decision on Thursday to recuse himself from a Justice Department investigation into the campaign’s Russian ties raises questions regarding the extent of his involvement and the longevity of his role as Attorney General.

The decision to recuse came after evidence surfaced of the Attorney General twice having met with a US Ambassador to Russia last year, after denying any such communication while under oath and in a written statement to Congress. In his Senate confirmation hearings in January, Sessions was asked what he would do if he was made aware of evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had contact with the Russians. “I’m not aware of any of those activities,” Sessions said. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.” An exchange from the confirmation hearing went as follows:

SEN. PATRICK J. LEAHY: Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers 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?” the Vermont Democrat asked in a questionnaire.

SESSIONS: No.

Sessions met with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak once in July at an event at the Republican National Committee and once in September while Sessions worked on the Senate’s Armed Services committee. Kislyak, whom US intelligence considers to be “one of Russia’s top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington,” has been named more than once in connection to Trump’s administration. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was already forced to resign because of revelations of his own conversations with Kislyak.

The Attorney General now faces calls for resignation and criminal investigation for lying under oath. As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “The information reported last night makes it clear, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Attorney General Sessions cannot possibly lead an investigation…with these revelations, he may very well become the subject of it.”

“(That) the top cop in our country lied under oath to the people is grounds for him to resign,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday. “He has proved that he is unqualified and unfit to serve in that position of trust.”

Sessions claims he met with the ambassador only in his capacity on the Armed Services Committee. He says he plans to “submit a supplement” to the record of his Senate testimony for correction.

“My response went to the question indicated about the continuing surrogate relationship that I firmly denied and correctly denied, and I did not mention in that time that I had met with the ambassador,” Sessions told Fox News on March 2. “So I will definitely make that a part of the record as I think is appropriate.”

Trump has declared that Sessions “did not say anything wrong. He could have stated his response more accurately, but it was clearly not intentional.”

Sessions is not the first Trump appointee to perjure himself on the stand—Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, Steve Mnuchin and Tom Price have all been accused of giving false testimony at their confirmation hearings. It is unclear whether Sessions will continue to serve as Attorney General, given an offense this serious.