The Bigger Scandal About Jeff Sessions

by Jon Hecht
Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Facing questioning from Senator Al Franken during his confirmation hearing to become attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said something that, while perhaps not an outright lie, certainly fudged the truth. I'm sure you've seen this in the news, but I'm not talking about Sessions' strange response to questions about connections to Russia. I'm talking about the falsehoods Sessions made about his record on civil rights. We should treat those as important, too.

After criticism of Sessions' history on race and civil rights — he prosecuted blacks for voting and lost, argued that the entire Dominican population is unworthy of U.S. immigration, and was opposed for a federal judgeship nomination by Coretta Scott King — Sessions worked in his confirmation hearings to claim that, actually, he was a longtime fighter for civil rights. He listed several civil rights cases, including three on voting rights and one on school desegregation, as among the 10 most important cases of his pre-Senate career at the Justice department.

However, contemporaries of Sessions at Justice said he barely touched those cases. "We can state categorically that Sessions had no substantive involvement in any of them," wrote former Department of Justice lawyers J. Gerald Hebert, Joseph D. Rich, and William Yeomans in the Washington Post. "He did what any U.S. attorney would have had to do: He signed his name on the complaint, and we added his name on any motions or briefs. That’s it."

In comparison with the concerns about the report that Sessions did not disclose his contact with the Russian ambassador to the United States — which potentially complicates his ability to be an impartial overseer of investigations into the country's influence on the election — this arguably distorted portrayal of his record on civil rights may seem like a small concern.

However, the civil rights issue and how it was treated during his confirmation matter quite a lot. Sessions had a disappointing record on race and civil rights, and he was confirmed anyway.

I don't know where this Russia stuff is going and, more importantly, how much it will actually influence U.S. foreign policy. For one, many his own cabinet members have taken a hard line on Russia.

However, for me, the presence of an attorney general with what I find to be an extremely worrying position on race, civil rights, immigration, and diversity is more disconcerting. Moreover, these worries about members of the Trump team are not limited to Sessions.

It is worth noting here that since Sessions became attorney general, he quickly proved his critics right about his commitment to civil rights. He pulled the Justice Department out of a case challenging a Texas Voter ID on grounds that it disproportionately prevents minorities from voting, and announced that it would no longer hold local police departments accountable for civil rights abuses. But Sessions is not the only concerning member of Trump's circle.

For example, Trump's deputy assistant, self-proclaimed Islamic terror expert and Seb Gorka (who is treated as an expert by few in his field and cannot speak Arabic) has his own reportedly concerning record. According to an investigation by the Jewish Daily Forward, Gorka was involved in "co-founding a political party with former prominent members of Jobbik, a political party with a well-known history of anti-Semitism; repeatedly publishing articles in a newspaper known for its anti-Semitic and racist content; and attending events with some of Hungary’s most notorious extreme-right figures."

Of course, there's Steve Bannon, who openly boasted that while under his leadership, Breitbart became "the platform for the alt-right." Bannon went on to tell Mother Jones' Sarah Posner, "Look, are there some people that are white nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the alt-right? Maybe. Are there some people that are anti-Semitic that are attracted? Maybe. Right? Maybe some people are attracted to the alt-right that are homophobes, right?"

Bannon justified these elements by adding, "But that's just like, there are certain elements of the progressive left and the hard left that attract certain elements." However, that justification doesn't comfort me — and likely nor does it comfort many other Americans.

Already, one Trump administration official has had to resign over lies he told about involvement with Russia. Dozens of Democratic members of Congress have called for Sessions to do the same. Not disclosing contact with a Russian official (while being under oath, no less) is a serious concern and a potential scandal. But we should focus as well on the other scandal hiding in plain sight within the Trump administration, one that I believe has real and dire effects on people's lives.