Jeff Sessions is one step closer to being Attorney General after the Senate Judiciary Committee formally recommended his confirmation to the full Senate on Wednesday morning.
The panel approved Sessions’ nomination on an 11–9 party-line vote one day later than Republicans had wanted, after Democrats succeeded in delaying the originally scheduled decision on Tuesday.
The committee had convened just hours after President Donald Trump fired the Department of Justice’s interim leader, Sally Yates, for refusing to defend the administration’s Muslim immigration ban. Democrat after Democrat suggested that Trump’s steamrolling of the DOJ’s independent judgment underscores their concerns about Sessions, who several Senators fear would allow and encourage Trump to put his own will above the law. Elsewhere in the building, Democrats rallied in similar fashion to boycott votes and delay other Trump nominees with worrisome records.
The unanimous opposition from committee Democrats in Tuesday’s delay and Wednesday’s vote marks a stark reversal from the party’s approach to other nominees, reflecting broad concerns that Sessions will apply federal law enforcement tools unevenly and de-emphasize civil rights work at the agency.
The reinvigorated opposition to Sessions was led by Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who had been rumored to be leaning “yes” just days earlier. She kicked off Tuesday’s delay by blasting Sessions, saying she now believes he would not be an independent Attorney General, but rather a loyal advocate for the White House’s whims. Such a speech is unusual in a body where members’ obsession with treating one another politely has meant no sitting Senator ever testified against a colleague’s cabinet nomination prior to Sessions’ own hearing. By early afternoon, every other committee Democrat had delivered a similar rebuke.
Feinstein tied her objections to Sessions directly back to Trump’s firing of Yates. The California Senator has “no confidence [Sessions] will uphold our laws and civil liberties as Attorney General,” she said, while praising Yates’ refusal to go along with an order she believed unlawful as “what a truly independent attorney general does.”
The flashy upheaval at the top of the department Monday night may have distracted from a topsy-turvy news cycle where Sessions has emerged as one of the most influential members of Trump’s political team. He appears to be something of a political fetish object inside Trump-world — White House insiders “have taken to calling the senator ‘Joseph’” in reference to the bible story about a powerful adviser to the Pharoah — and Trump’s executive orders are being crafted by Sessions protégé Stephen Miller.
It is unusual for an Attorney General to be so intimately involved in crafting presidential policies. It is especially chilling for the top law enforcement officer in the land to have a crucial hand in political maneuvers meant to swing the country onto a nationalistic “America First” path that represents a radical change from the longstanding political order. The country’s top law enforcer will play a crucial role in adjudicating any potential disputes between Trump’s agenda, American law, and the American people.
Until the full Senate can vote on Sessions, Trump has named Dana Boente as Acting Attorney General in place of the outgoing Sally Yates. Yates had told staff on Monday that the agency would not defend Trump’s travel ban for majority-Muslim countries because she did not believe it was lawful.
Sessions, meanwhile, is one of the minds behind Trump’s “Muslim ban.”