In his victory speech on election night, the president-elect told the entire world, “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be a president for all Americans.”
This conciliatory note was welcome. Perhaps Trump, who for decades had routinely praised and donated to moderate candidates, would set aside the bigotry and extremism that defined his campaign for the presidency.
But any hope that Trump might uphold his election night pledge to work for all Americans was dead and buried less than two weeks later, when he announced his decision to nominate Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to serve as Attorney General.
The position of Attorney General is immensely powerful. It carries the ability to shape American jurisprudence, criminal justice, and law enforcement for decades. An effective Attorney General has the potential to bring America closer to its proclaimed ideals of equality before the law and justice for all.
After railing against the corruption of Washington and Wall Street during the campaign, the president-elect had an opportunity to select an Attorney General with a record of holding powerful corporate interests and crooked politicians accountable—one who could be trusted to enforce the law fairly and defend the rights of vulnerable communities.
This would have been the right thing to do and a political winner. Strong majorities of voters support rewriting the rules of our economy to protect the interests of working people and put abusive corporate executives on a tighter leash.
But Trump selected Sessions, whose decades in public life tell us a painful truth. During the 1960s, he would have been more likely to blast the fire hoses and unleash the hounds on the Alabaman children marching for civil rights than to march alongside them.
His defenders will argue that Sessions attended the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery, that he’s publicly praised Rosa Parks, or that Condoleezza Rica and Senator Tim Scott endorsed him for AG. How could he possibly be a racist?
But beyond the PR stunts and applause of his fellow Republicans, Sessions’s career has been defined by hostility to the idea that the law can make our country a more just and equal place. He has reliably opposed the goals of the civil rights movement, beginning with his decades-long opposition to the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. And he has labored to make life harder and less free for women, children with special needs, and communities of color.
In 1985, while serving as a US Attorney in Alabama, he rounded up civil rights activists and bused them far from their homes for FBI interrogation. These activists knew that in the Deep South’s recent past, getting seized and driven far away by law enforcement could mean a lynching was at hand. He eventually charged three of these activists with voter fraud. Sessions’s bogus case fell apart and all the accused were acquitted, but he never apologized for the trauma he caused.
He has singled out qualified African-American nominees from his home state for obstruction when they were nominated for federal judgeships.
He has opposed laws that guarantee children with special needs access to a quality public education, asserting that these essential protections “may be the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today” and that ensuring special needs children get what they need is “a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.”
In a 2015 interview with Steve Bannon—then editor of a white supremacist website, now senior advisor to Donald Trump—Sessions praised a 1924 immigration law that barred all non-white immigration. His defense of this law, which also effectively banned Italian immigrants like my great-grandparents and Jews fleeing genocide in Eastern Europe, was not simply a matter of knowing his Breitbart audience. In the Senate, he endorsed Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the country (although during his confirmation hearing under oath he said he no longer supports this position) and has repeatedly scuttled bipartisan efforts at comprehensive immigration reform.
And on a particularly disturbing note for a man who would be the top law enforcement officer in the country, Sessions hung the police officers, firemen, and other heroes of September 11 out to dry by repeatedly blocking the James Zadroga Act. Men who risked it all to save their fellow New Yorkers from the rubble of the World Trade Center died waiting for the medical attention they needed while Sessions blocked the bill from his Senate office.
Given Republican control of the Senate, it is likely Sessions will be confirmed. Americans should expect a tenure in which it becomes increasingly harder for communities of color to vote, hard-working immigrant families are ripped apart by federal agents, and even the most violent, corrupt police departments are never investigated.
After the election, many conservatives mocked people upset by the results. They called them crybabies and sore losers. But the nomination of Jeff Sessions should make every American’s blood run cold. Hundreds of Americans, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on down, gave their lives for the cause of racial progress and justice. An Attorney General Sessions will do his best to ensure they died in vain.