The Cynical Selling of Jeff Sessions as a Civil-Rights Champion

The new attorney general had strong conservative credentials, but no record as a civil-rights advocate. So his defenders invented one.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Having picked Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general, the Trump administration might have made the case for conservative leadership at the Justice Department. Instead, it chose to portray Sessions as a stalwart defender of civil rights.

This was largely a fiction, one that was as thinly supported as it was ardently asserted by the Trump administration and its allies, as they sought to deflect the 30-year-old allegations of racism that had derailed Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench in 1986. Sessions’s defenders might have simply argued that he was unfairly maligned in 1986 and left it at that. Instead, to smooth his path to confirmation, they created a portrait of  Jeff Sessions as a civil-rights crusader at odds with the available evidence.

Sessions’s defenders initially said that he began his career battling segregationist Alabama governor Lurleen Wallace, a talking point that disappeared shortly after The Atlantic reported that her Republican opponent was also a segregationist. Under questioning by Minnesota Senator Al Franken, Sessions conceded that the claim  he had filed 20 or 30 desegregation cases was incorrect, another story first reported by The Atlantic. Those supporters also exaggerated his role in the prosecution of a Ku Klux Klansman convicted in a lynching case and the subsequent civil suit that bankrupted the Klan faction he belonged to.

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.

“We have a crime problem. I wish the rise that we are seeing in crime in America today were some sort of aberration or a blip,” Sessions said. “My best judgment, having been involved in criminal law enforcement for many years, is that this is a dangerous, permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk.”

The latest statistics show a slight uptick that leaves the violent crime rate still lower than it was for the eight years of the Bush administration; that uptick follows decades of declines that produced a historic low in violent crime. Declaring it a “dangerous permanent trend” exceeds the evidence. But in keeping with the Trump administration’s penchant for referring to terrorist attacks that never occurred in order to justify its policies, Sessions invoked a permanent rise in crime to justify whatever policies he pursues during his tenure.

In his brief remarks after being sworn in, there were no more words of reassurance for black Americans worried about enforcement of anti-discrimination or voting rights laws, no comfort for LGBT Americans wondering if this Justice Department will defend their rights, not a word about women who understandably concerned about life under a president who brags about sexual assault.

After all, Sessions had won. There was no longer any need to convince anyone.