Democrats Go Soft on Jeff Sessions and Why That Should Concern Us All
Historian Gerald Horne says Jeff Sessions as Trump’s Attorney General signals a frontal assault against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to the Real News Network. We’re coming to you live on Facebook, as we cover the Senate Confirmation hearings underway for Donald Trump’s cabinet picks. First up is Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who Trump has tapped for Attorney General. He was Trump’s earliest, and one of his most vocal supporters in the Senate. He’s expected to be confirmed, but that hasn’t stopped what seemed like an endless stream of protestors from disrupting the hearing.
MAN: This is a… (heckling – inaudible) …the whole (inaudible) …redeemed (inaudible). People just wanted you to speak to these things, (inaudible) poor people… (inaudible – heckling) … (shouting)
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JAISAL NOOR: Well, now joining us to discuss this is Gerald Horne. He’s the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History in African-American Studies, at the University of Houston. Author of many books, most recently, “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America”. Thanks so much for joining us again.
GERALD HORNE: Thank you for inviting me.
JAISAL NOOR: So, Jeff Sessions spent a good deal of time today defending his history, and his record on civil rights. Which is significant, because in 1986, Republicans joined with Democrats to block him from becoming a federal judge, after allegations of racism surfaced from his colleagues.
To counter these claims today, he cited his prosecution of civil rights activists when he was U.S. Attorney to Alabama in the 1980s. They were registering elderly black voters. We’re going to play the clip, and then we’ll play news coverage from 1986 that discusses that case. Here’s that clip.
JEFF SESSIONS: Let me address another issue straight on. I was accused in 1986 of failing to protect the voting rights of African-Americans, by representing the Perry County case, the voter fraud case, and of condemning civil rights advocates and organizations, and even harboring, amazingly, sympathies for the KKK. These are damnably false charges.
The voter fraud case my office prosecuted was in response to pleas from African-American incumbent elected officials, who claimed that the absentee ballot process involved a situation in which ballots cast for them were stolen, altered, and cast for their opponents.
REPORTER: His biggest problem came in a case he prosecuted and lost, a vote fraud case involving black civil rights leaders in Perry County, Alabama.
Defendants in the Perry County case were Albert and Evelyn Turner, political and civil rights leaders for more than 20 years. Albert was an aide to Martin Luther King. Their scrapbook has all the marches.
EVENLYN TURNER: This is Bloody Sunday. Albert can see… that’s him right there.
REPORTER: Albert Turner guided the mules at Dr. King’s funeral. The federal government charged the Turners with doctoring absentee ballots, vote fraud and mail fraud.
ALBERT TURNER: My own opinion is that the case was … I actually don’t think Jeff Sessions ever came in with an ounce of evidence.
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JAISAL NOOR: Okay, so to recap, Jeff Sessions says he is a defender of civil rights and voting rights, because he prosecuted the Turners who were registering elderly black voters in Alabama in the ’80s. Gerald Horne, give us your response to this.
GERALD HORNE: Well, obviously, Jeff Sessions’ response is a case of opportunism. It reminds me of the vice presidential debate with Mike Pence and the Democratic candidate, Tim Kaine, where Mike Pence basically denied reality and denied truths — and apparently that worked, since now he’s the Vice President-elect of the United States of America.
Jeff Sessions has copied that playbook, and feels that this will lead to his confirmation as the U.S. Attorney General. It’s rather disconcerting to look at the New York Times headline and see that according to their reporter, the Democrats did not land a glove on Jeff Sessions — which is quite unfortunate, because that voting rights case is enough to sink this nomination. Keep in mind–
JAISAL NOOR: And… It actually was part of why he wasn’t a federal judge in ’86, why Republicans joined with Democrats. It was a Republican-controlled committee that blocked him from being a federal judge.
GERALD HORNE: Yeah, basically what happened, was that Albert Turner was helping some voters fill out an absentee ballot — some of these voters reputedly had problems in terms of reading these ballots. And to prosecute Mr. Turner, and try to put him in jail for such assistance is beyond the pale.
In the New York Times this morning, in fact, the wife of Mr. Turner –- Mr. Turner has now passed away –- she said that Jeff Sessions came up to her recently and tried to explain, and tried to hug her, and she basically chased him away. And I think that the Democrats and other senators of good will should chase him away from that hearing room, and make sure he is not confirmed as the next Attorney General of the United States.
JAISAL NOOR: Well, he’s certainly been facing what seems like an endless barrage of protests. There is a moment where protestors with Code Pink actually dressed up in KKK hoods, to confront him about his past.
And, you know, I was watching the hearings on CSPAN, and the president of the NAACP also expressed his frustration that Sessions, who was a Senator, member of the same committee, was treated with such deference. He wasn’t really challenged very often on his record. There was a moment where he was challenged, though, by Senator Al Franken. He questioned Sessions about several civil rights cases that Sessions claims to have worked on as, again, U.S. Attorney to Alabama.
I want to play a clip of that questioning, and actually was able to track down one of the lawyers that did work on those cases. Mr. Gerald Hebert, who was a Department of Justice lawyer at the time, and he actually testified in Sessions’ hearing in 1986. And he says Sessions wasn’t being truthful. And that’s why he and several of his Department of Justice colleagues wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, which went viral. Here’s that exchange.
AL FRANKEN: Last week, I should note three attorneys who worked at DOJ, and who actually brought three of the four cases, who wrote an op-ed piece in which they say, “We can state categorically that Sessions had no substantive involvement in any of them.”
Now, you originally said that you personally handled three of these cases, but these lawyers say that you had no substantive involvement. Chairman Grassley, I would ask that that op-ed from last Tuesday’s Washington Post be entered into the record.
CHAIRMAN GRASSLEY: Without objection it will be entered.
AL FRANKEN: Are they distorting your record here?
JEFF SESSIONS: Yes. In fact, one of the writers there, Mr. Hebert, spent a good bit of time in my office. He said I supported him in all the cases he brought, that I was more supportive than almost any other U.S. Attorney, and that I provided office space. I signed the complaints that he brought, and as you know… may know, Senator Franken, when a lawyer signs a complaint, he’s required to affirm that he believes in that complaint, and supports that complaint, and supports that legal action.
GERALD HEBERT: We looked at that list, and three or four of those cases were ones that we handled personally when we were at the Justice Department. And we knew he didn’t really have any involvement, substantively, in any of those cases. So, we felt that the senate colleagues that he has, who are on the Judiciary Committee, as well as members of the public, ought to know that he really can’t be taking credit for other people’s work.
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JAISAL NOOR: So, that was that exchange with Senator Franken, questioning Jeff Sessions about his claims that he worked on those cases, and Sessions saying, “No, Mr. Hebert, he thinks highly of me, I supported his work.” And then my interview with Gerald Hebert saying, “Absolutely not, that is not the case.”
This is a clear example of Sessions fabricating history to change his track record on civil rights, to make it more appealing and to make it easier, I guess, for his confirmation. Your response, Professor Horne?
GERALD HORNE: Well, it reminds me of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who more than seven decades ago was fighting Billy Conn, and Joe Louis’s message to Billy Conn is, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” Jeff Sessions may be able to run from his record temporarily, but he cannot hide from his record, which is a human rights and civil rights debacle. Keep in mind that Jeff Sessions is on record as denying the notion of birthright citizenship, which is embedded in the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In other words, the 14th Amendment says if you’re born in the United States, you’re a citizen of the United States. Because Jeff Sessions is so anti-immigrant and because, like his boss, Donald J. Trump, he accepts the fallacious notion of so-called Anchor Babies — that is to say women and other women coming into the United States in order to have a baby, so that somehow then they can get a leg up into getting rights as U.S. nationals, or at least mothers of U.S. nationals. Because he accepts such fallacies, he’s willing to mangle, and do violence, to the Constitution of the United States of America, and the 14th Amendment, more specifically.
He’s also very hostile to LBGT rights. He’s anti-immigrant, as noted. He’s anti-working class, in terms of the denial of the right of workers to get a living wage. He should be rejected by the U.S. Senate.
JAISAL NOOR: Another stance he’s taken, is he has come out on record and opposed the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted just a few years ago. And we’ve seen the reports of massive voter disenfranchisement across the country, hundreds of thousands of people not being able to vote. We’ve seen more than a dozen states limit voting, the ability to vote, which disproportionately target African-American and people of color.
And now you’re going to have Jeff Sessions, who actually prosecuted people for registering people to vote, as the Attorney General defending the right to vote. What is that going to mean for the ability for this country to have the semblance of a fair election in the future?
GERALD HORNE: Well, it makes the possibility of a fair election in the United States of America basically a nullity: null and void, a joke, a travesty. It would be as if you were appointing the wolf to guard the henhouse. If Jeff Sessions, as Attorney General, has the authority to supervise Voting Rights Act regulation, and in fact, to make sure that the Voting Rights Act, even as gutted, is still not removed from the books altogether, once again, it’s very disappointing to see that many of the Democratic Senators are treating him as if he were a valued colleague, as opposed to treating him as the civil rights and constitutional rights outlaw that he actually is.
JAISAL NOOR: And so, another thing that’s of concern to people around the country and, for example, in Baltimore, is that Jeff Sessions has… he supports “law and order”, and he’s come out specifically against Consent Decrees. That’s when the federal government, Department of Justice, intervenes with local police departments.
Like we saw in Ferguson, and again right here in Baltimore, when the actions of the local police are so egregious that, as in the Baltimore case, that DOJ lawyers found a pattern in practice of routine constitutional violation of civil and human rights by the police force, especially on the African-American population — and that’s something Baltimore’s tackled for a long time — the local authorities can’t seem to get a grip on it, so the feds have intervened. And in Baltimore’s case, if that Consent Decree is not that… to a federal judge, by the time Trump takes office, it’s likely going to mean that there will be no Consent Decree here, that things will go back to the way they were.
Talk about what a Donald Trump presidency, and a Jeff Sessions Attorney General, could mean for law enforcement across the country.
GERALD HORNE: Well, not only is what you’re saying relevant to Baltimore — recall a few years ago that Tamir Rice, a young black boy, was killed on tape by Cleveland police officers — there was no viable prosecution of those police officers. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department intervened, just like the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department intervened with regard to Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath a few years ago of the slaying of Michael Brown.
If Jeff Sessions becomes the U.S. Attorney General, you can kiss good bye the idea of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department intervening in cases where young black boys and men have been killed by the police. This could lead to a further epidemic of such police slayings, and obviously this is too ghastly to contemplate.
JAISAL NOOR: And, Professor Horne, you’ve studied and documented U.S. history since its inception, done some of the leading work on those issues. How do you place the moment we’re in, in an historical context with a Trump presidency, and someone like Jeff Sessions, who is deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal judge 30 years ago, to now be our next Attorney General?
GERALD HORNE: Well, what’s interesting is that Reverend William Barber, of Moral Mondays fame, in North Carolina, the head of the NAACP in that state, has suggested that we’re going through the Third Reconstruction, and the birth pangs of the Third Reconstruction. He’s referring to the First Reconstruction after the abolishing of slavery post-1865, the Second Reconstruction in the 1960s culminating, as you noted, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He says that we’re now on the verge of a Third Reconstruction. But in fact, with all due respect to Reverend Barber, what seems to be unfolding with this pending appointment of Jeff Sessions, is the overthrow of the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s. Just like the First Reconstruction, post-1865, was overthrown in 1877.
Now, in 2017, we see, 140 year later, that we’re on the verge of the overthrow of the Second Reconstruction, but it’s not too late to prevent that result from taking place.
I salute the protesters, I salute Code Pink, but obviously, we will need much more if Jeff Sessions is to be denied the appointment to be the next Attorney General of the United States of America.
JAISAL NOOR: All right, Gerald Horne, thank you so much for joining us.
We want to thank you all for joining us on Facebook. We will continue our ongoing coverage of the confirmation hearings of Jeff Sessions’ cabinet appointees, and the Trump administration, including on Inauguration Day and beyond. Thank you so much for joining us.