The U.S. Senate narrowly confirmed Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as U.S. attorney general after a rancorous debate that included the silencing of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and criticism of a long anti-LGBT career.
Lawmakers approved Sessions at the nation’s top lawyer by a 52-47 vote along party lines. The Republican caucus, including Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), was unified in support of Sessions. The Democratic caucus, including lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), was largely opposed, although Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) broke ranks to vote with Republicans.
The confirmation of Sessions as attorney general was anathema to LGBT rights supporters — especially after the office was most recently held by Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch — because of Sessions’ long anti-LGBT record in Congress.
Janson Wu, executive director of the GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, said in a statement the Sessions confirmation marks a “sad day for justice in our country.”
“It is our hope that, now confirmed, Attorney General Sessions will recognize the magnitude of his obligation to all Americans, and will seek to carry out the duties of his office accordingly,” Wu said. “But our Constitution’s guarantees of liberty and equality apply regardless of who holds that office. As advocates for LGBTQ Americans and Americans living with HIV, we stand ready to hold Attorney General Sessions accountable, and to defend those constitutional guarantees at every turn.”
As a U.S. senator, Sessions during the Bush administration voted in favor of a U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage throughout the entire the country and during the Obama administration against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” hate crimes protection legislation and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Upon the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of nationwide marriage equality, Sessions called the decision “unconstitutional.”
During his confirmation hearing, Sessions sought to downplay the anti-LGBT positions he’s taken over the course of his career and said he understands “the demands for justice and fairness made by our LGBT community.” Sessions said he’d follow the law with respect to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage and the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. But Sessions also said a priority of his would be “religious freedom,” which is code in conservative circles for enabling discrimination against LGBT people.
It was charges of racism that dogged Sessions the most during the confirmation process — an accusation the senator has faced before. In 1986, Sessions was nominated for a seat on the federal judiciary, but the Senate denied him the seat based on charges of racism. Among other things, a career Justice Department attorney at the time testified Sessions had said white civil rights lawyers are a traitor to their race.
Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, wrote in an op-ed for Teen Vogue various minority factions are united against Sessions because the senator has been a hostile to each of them.
“We talk a lot about how the resistance to Donald Trump is intersectional; because LGBTQ people are Muslims, women, people of color, Latinx, and immigrants, an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” McBride said. “Well as we see it, Jeff Sessions’s opposition to equality is intersectional, too. His actions tell us that he’ll discriminate against almost anyone, and Donald Trump has decided to put our basic civil rights in his hands.”
Prior to confirmation vote, Warren sought to read a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, the widow of the late Martin Luther King, Jr., who said Sessions as a U.S. attorney sought to “chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens” and attempted to “frighten and intimidate elderly black voters.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took the unusual step of silencing Warren on the basis she violated Senate Rule 19, which prohibits senators from imputing on the floor other senators have engaged in conduct unworthy of a senator.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday in response to the letter he has respects for King’s accomplishments on civil rights, but would “respectfully disagree” with her on Sessions “then and now.”
“His record on civil voting rights I think is outstanding and like the late Arlen Specter, I can only hope that if she was still with us today that after getting to know him and seen his record and commitment to voting and civil rights that she would share the same view that Sen. Specter did, where he said although I voted against him, getting to know the man that he is now, I regret that vote,” Spicer said. “I would hope that if she were still with us today that she would share that sentiment.”