Donald Trump’s incoherent and insane press conference today reinforced how the president-elect is the greatest threat to democracy in our lifetime. He has little regard for the Constitution, the rule of law, or core democratic institutions.
Trump’s press conference was exhibit A for why we need a strong and independent attorney general who can stand up to the president. Yet while Trump rambled from the podium, civil-rights activists were testifying about how his attorney-general nominee, Jeff Sessions, would undermine one of the most important rights in a democracy: the right to vote.
“It is Senator Sessions’s record on voting rights that is perhaps the most troubling,” said NAACP President Cornell Brooks, pointing to Sessions’s prosecution of civil-rights activists for voter fraud, support for gutting the Voting Rights Act, and backing of discriminatory voter-ID laws.
“He will be expected to enforce voting rights, but his record indicates that he won’t,” said New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who took the unprecedented step of testifying against a fellow senator.
The civil-rights icon John Lewis was one of the last people to testify during the two-day hearings, but one of the most powerful voices. “Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Senator Sessions’s call for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then,” Congressman Lewis said. “The rule of law was used to violate the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color.”
Lewis said he’d come to testify on behalf of “millions of Americans [who] are concerned that some leaders reject decades of progress and want to return to the dark past, when the power of the law was used to deny the freedoms protected by the Constitution.”
In 1965, Lewis nearly died marching to pass the Voting Rights Act, which Sessions called “intrusive.” One of the people who marched directly behind Lewis on Bloody Sunday was Albert Turner Jr., who Sessions prosecuted for voter fraud 20 years later. When Lewis was brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers, Turner can be seen running for his life.
— Ari Berman (@AriBerman) January 11, 2017
Sessions defended his handling of the 1985 voter-fraud case from Perry County, Alabama, in an attempt to redefine his record on civil rights. “I was accused of failing to protect the voting rights of African-Americans by prosecuting the Perry County voter fraud case,” he testified yesterday. “The voter fraud case my office prosecuted was in response to African-American incumbent officials who claimed that the absentee ballot process involved a situation in which ballots cast for them were stolen, altered or cast for their opponents. The prosecution sought to protect the integrity of the ballot, not to block voting. It was a voting rights case.”
It was a remarkable statement by Sessions. Calling the prosecution of civil-rights activists “a voting-rights case,” is like saying that segregation was about “water-fountain integrity.”
Here are the facts:
A white district attorney urged Sessions to prosecute the civil-rights activists—the same DA who excluded all black jurors, including six for “low intelligence,” when trying a death-row case against a black man before an all-white jury in Selma. (Sessions defended that case on appeal.)
The black candidates in Perry County who supported the prosecution were backed by the segregationist White Citizens Council and the local white establishment, as Emily Bazelon of The New York Times Magazine reported.
The civil-rights activists who Sessions prosecuted had previously gone to the Justice Department to complain that white voters were casting absentee ballots. They were told that black candidates should start using absentee ballots themselves. When they did precisely that, the Justice Department and FBI investigated them. “Sessions didn’t investigate those who helped white voters, but he did investigate those who helped black voters,” testified David Cole, legal director for the ACLU.
Of 700 ballots investigated in the 1984 election, the prosecution could find only 27 that had been altered, and government witnesses, including elderly and sometimes illiterate black voters, testified that they had asked Albert Turner for help filling out their ballots.
This was not a run-of-the-mill case but an extraordinary and historic abuse of power. As The Washington Post noted, Sessions was the first US Attorney to prosecute civil rights activists for voter fraud since the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965. The people he prosecuted had nearly died fighting for the right to vote. The trial took place in Selma on the 20th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. The jury acquitted the activists of all charges within three hours. For all of these reasons, the Perry County case was a major reason Sessions was blocked as a federal judge in 1986.
Sessions made it sound like he was Martin Luther King, but he was more like Strom Thurmond. “If he was a champion of civil rights, wouldn’t the civil rights community support him instead of standing nearly unanimously against him?” asked Representative Cedric Richmond, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
— Ari Berman (@AriBerman) November 18, 2016
All of this matters because there’s no evidence Sessions has changed since then. “Senator Sessions record of prosecuting voter fraud is connected to a record of voter suppression legislation today,” Cornell Brooks testified.
Sessions pledged “aggressive enforcement of our laws to ensure access to the ballot for every eligible American voter,” but stuck by his characterization of the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive” and said “it was a good feeling” when the Supreme Court gutted the law. He said that voter-ID laws “don’t appear to me to be discriminatory,” even though courts in North Carolina and Texas have judged such laws to be intentionally discriminatory against black and Latino voters. When Sessions was pressed about the decisions in North Carolina and Texas, he said he was “not familiar” with the rulings, despite the fact that they were some of the most high-profile cases filed by the Obama Justice Department.
In one of the most revealing exchanges of the two days, Senator Al Franken (by far the best questioner at the hearings), asked Sessions to respond to Trump’s debunked tweet that “millions of people voted illegally” in 2016.
“Do you believe that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the presidential election?” asked Franken.
“I do believe we regularly have fraudulent activities occur during election cycles,” Sessions responded.
It was a remarkable assertion, given that there have been only four cases of voter fraud in 2016 out of 135 million votes cast. But Sessions was pursuing a well-worn GOP strategy of perpetuating the myth of voter fraud to support more restrictive voting laws that disproportionately hurt Democratic voters and people of color. At the hearing, Trump officials passed out an article by Hans von Spakovsky, the originator of the voter-fraud myth, titled, “How Black Democrats Stole Votes in Alabama And Jeff Sessions Tried to Stop It.” When Sessions said he wanted to “ensure the integrity of the electoral process,” he was invoking a well-known code word for future suppression efforts, like stricter ID laws, cutting early voting, restricting voter-registration drives, and purging the voting rolls.
As Franken, put it, “Because you say that 3 million fraudulent votes were cast, that’s your excuse to suppress votes.”
In a speech last year, Sessions said, “I feel I should have stepped forward more” during the civil-rights era. When Senator Chris Coons asked Sessions what more he could’ve done or why he didn’t support legislation to restore the VRA today, Sessions didn’t answer. The measures he has taken, like awarding the congressional gold medal to the Selma marchers, have been purely symbolic.
On related issues, Sessions took credit for prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan for lynching a black man in Mobile in 1981 even though the first black prosecutor in Alabama testified that he was pressured “to drop the case.” Sessions said he’d never called the NAACP “un-American,” despite multiple witnesses testified in 1986 that he did. Under repeated questioning from Franken, Sessions admitted that he did not work on “20 to 30” desegregation cases as he’d originally claimed, which ex-Justice Department lawyers disputed, and that he didn’t even know one of the lawyers who handled a key case he supposedly oversaw.
Sessions is likely to be confirmed because he’s well-liked by his colleagues, according to reports. But it’s his record, not his personality, that Senators should be focusing on, Lewis testified. “It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you, we need someone who is going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people that need help, for people who have been discriminated against.”
There have been many previous attorneys general who have been hostile to voting rights. The Justice Department under Nixon and Reagan pushed legislation to weaken the VRA. John Ashcroft made investigating voter fraud a personal crusade, and the Bush administration fired US Attorneys who didn’t pursue trumped-up fraud cases. But these efforts were largely unsuccessful—a bipartisan coalition in Congress strengthened voting-rights protections under Nixon and Reagan and reauthorized the VRA under Bush. The law was so popular that it passed the Senate 98-0 in 2006, with Sessions voting for it.
But that coalition has collapsed because Republicans across the country have decided to make it harder to vote. Sessions will be uniquely dangerous because of his own extreme views, because Congress will not constrain him, because his boss has little regard for democracy, and because the Republican Party he represents is now firmly on the wrong side of civil rights.
The party of Lincoln died long ago, but if Sessions is confirmed as attorney general, it will be the final nail in the coffin.