Other claims about Sessions’s record similarly dissolved under scrutiny. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus insisted Sessions “worked his heart out” to get a posthumous medal for the civil-rights activist Rosa Parks; Sessions did not even sponsor the bill, he was one of 82 co-sponsors. Trump allies ran ads praising Sessions as a civil-rights hero, showing him at the Selma anniversary march with Representative John Lewis, who had actually testified against Sessions’s confirmation.
Sessions’s allies pointed to his work reducing the crack-powder cocaine disparity––but that was a compromise bill that did not entirely remove the disparity precisely because Sessions himself opposed doing so. Sessions supporters cited his 2006 vote for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, but he did so along with 97 other Senators; and also gave a speech arguing a key part of the landmark civil rights law was unconstitutional on the Senate floor the day of the vote. Years later, when part of the law was struck down paving the way for a flurry of restrictive state voting laws, he praised the decision.
Which is to say nothing of his record on immigrants, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. Sessions is on record opposing Supreme Court decisions striking down laws banning homosexual sex and same-sex marriage and he opposed the repeal of the policy forbidding gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. He voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and said it would be a “stretch” to describe grabbing a woman’s genitals, as the president once bragged about doing, as sexual assault. He has spent years campaigning for restrictions on Muslim immigration to the United States, and defended Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country.
Sessions’s advocates might have simply defended his conservative political positions on the merits. Instead, they portrayed him as having an “outstanding” civil rights record, in the words of Press Secretary Sean Spicer, an argument that was Trumpian in its dishonesty, not simply incorrect but ostentatiously false.
Perhaps some conservatives believed the spin. Civil-rights groups did not. During his confirmation hearing, when he was seeking the votes he would need to secure the position of attorney general, Sessions sought to assuage them.
“I deeply understand the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters. I have witnessed it,” Sessions told the Senate in January. “I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by the L.G.B.T. community. I understand the lifelong scars born by women who are victims of assault and abuse.”
That kinder, softer Jeff Sessions was absent as he took the oath of office on Thursday morning. In his place was the Sessions that everyone, from his most hardened detractors to his staunchest supporters, would recognize.