During a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions struggled to answer basic questions about race, diversity, and a report authored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counterterrorism Division on so-called “black identity extremists.”
“Who had the power in your department to order [something] like this?” Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) asked Sessions, referring to the FBI’s report, which was released in August and was titled, “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement.” The report was initially met with heavy criticism from groups like the Congressional Black Caucus, Black Lives Matter, and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), who felt it unjustly targeted black citizens and was reminiscent of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation in the 1950s and ’60s, which targeted civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
“I’m not sure how that report got ordered,” Sessions said, stumbling over his words. “I don’t believe I explicitly approved or directed it.”
Pushed on whether he himself believed there was a larger “black identity extremist” movement brewing, Sessions responded, “I would be anxious to see the conclusions of that report, but I am aware that there are groups that do have an extraordinary commitment to their racial identity and some have transformed themselves even into violent activists.”
Things snowballed from there. After highlighting white “extremist” organizations like neo-Nazi groups, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and the sovereign citizens movement — which believes in following the law on its own selective terms and has violently targeted and killed police officers — Bass then asked Sessions whether he believed the activist Black Lives Matter group should still be categorized by the FBI as “extremist” as well.
Sessions replied, “I’m not able to comment on that. I have not so declared it.” He added that he would review the FBI’s report following the hearing, stating that “they usually do an excellent job, objective and fair, on those kinds of reports.”
Sessions was also pressed Tuesday on the Trump administration’s judicial nominees, 91 percent of whom are white, and 81 percent of whom are male.
“Does that foster diversity?” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) asked.
“I’m not aware of the numbers, but we should look for quality candidates and I think diversity is, um… a matter that has significance,” he said.
When Richmond whether Sessions had any Black senior staffers working in his office, the attorney general admitted, “I do not have a senior staff member at this time that’s an African-American.”
Sessions justified the oversight by claiming that he had once “participated in recommending an African-American judge” back in Alabama when he was a senator.
Sessions has come under fire previously for implementing policies as attorney general that disproportionately hurt Black and minority communities. In May, he announced that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would once again crack down on low-level drug offenders and re-implement mandatory-minimum sentencing, reversing an Obama-era policy instituted by then-Attorney General Eric Holder that reserved the harshest punishments for “serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers.” A few months earlier, in February, he also announced that the DOJ would pull back on monitoring troubled police departments that had been “charged with civil rights abuses,” according to The New York Times.
“I don’t think it’s wrong or mean or insensitive to civil rights or human rights,” he stated at the time.
The attorney general’s nomination hearings were similarly plagued with charges of racism, with many citing decades-old allegations that Sessions had once called a Black prosecutor “boy” and had reportedly agreed that a white lawyer was “maybe” a “disgrace to his race” for accepting Black clients. Sessions was also criticized for joking that he was “OK” with the KKK “until [he] found out they smoked pot” and for allegedly calling the ACLU and NAACP “un-American” and “communist-inspired.”