Reality Check: Little Can Be Done To Stop Jeff Sessions’ Nomination
The Senate Judiciary Committee met today to vote on the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions as the next US Attorney General. The actual vote, however, was delayed by Democrats running out the clock and using an arcane rule limiting the length of time of such meetings. Barring an extraordinary turn of events in the next 18 hours, such tactics, while admirable, will not be enough to stop Senator Sessions from being confirmed. While all Democrats will likely vote against Sessions, they simply do not have the votes needed to block his nomination. As such, the party must be wary of how much attention they give to opposing this or any other singular Cabinet pick, as they move forward in opposing the Trump agenda.
The notion of Senator Sessions serving as the chief enforcer of federal law is justifiably concerning. In a lot of ways, he embodies the worst fears Trump opponents have of his administration. His history of racism and fierce opposition to immigration, civil rights, and voting rights measures as both Alabama Attorney General and US Senator would be immediately disqualifying in more sane political times. If and when he is confirmed as Attorney General, Sessions will doubtless be tasked with legitimizing a Trump agenda that, less than two weeks in, has already proved to be legally dubious (Trump’s firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates showed what he thinks of those questioning the legality of his actions). Sessions has already shown his appetite for doing so, threatening to go after sanctuary cities and signaling an indifference to investigating alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 elections.
Because of this, any sign of capitulation on the nomination of Senator Sessions by Democrats in the Senate will be seen as cowardice and betrayal by their base. This view, however, is short sighted. Delays and grandstanding may win brownie points with supporters now, but in the long run will not count for much else. The left must remember that opposing the Trump administration entails a long four year battle on numerous fronts. In order to limit Sessions in particular, and the Trump agenda in general, they must learn where, when, and how to oppose their actions.
You Down with the US AG? No, not me…
Resisting an Attorney General Sessions starts with understanding his role. As the government’s top lawyer, an Attorney General is responsible for ensuring all executive policies are constitutional, and also upholding federal law by investigating violations and prosecuting them in court. They are also the head of the Department of Justice, giving them authority over agencies such as the FBI, US Marshals’ Service and other law enforcement agencies, while also giving them control of all US attorneys and marshals. The duty to uphold the law gives an Attorney General expansive power, with the ability to direct the president on many of his proposed policies, to enforce federal laws in the manner the president directs, and to green-light policies pursued by other government agencies on issues ranging from immigration, gun control, police violence, LGBTQ rights, and many others.
All of this makes Sessions a formidable foe for Democrats and those fighting for many of the rights the Trump administration is menacing. But there are limitations to the extent the Attorney General can exercise their authority. First, the DoJ’s budget has to be approved by Congress. This gives Democrats an opportunity to identify the methods Sessions will prioritize in enforcing Trump’s policies, and work to block them, hopefully with the help of Republicans brave enough to stand up to Trump. The transition team’s proposed DoJ budget offers plenty of political fodder, with major cuts to grants for police officers, services for crimes victims’ families, and even the Office on Violence Against Women. Passing such measures will leave some Republicans at odds with their platforms on criminal justice, as well as with their constituencies.
Second, while the Attorney General can seek to enforce laws as directed by the president, they still need to be interpreted by judges at the federal and state level. This complicates their ability to push widespread directives, not least because state judges in 39 states are elected, not directly appointed. This puts an even greater onus for Democrats to contest every single election at the most local level immediately. Local and state judicial elections come up almost ever year, with elections in six states in 2017 alone.
Activists and other opponents of Trump and Sessions have a role to play too. Donations to legal defense funds and civil rights groups will be essential to defending the rights of many citizens that may find themselves at odds with executive orders or other government directives, or in cases where the DoJ no longer prioritizes the protection of the rights of certain groups. As voters, taking action against a judge or bill that threatens citizens’ rights is paramount. One such example is a bill currently in the Virginia state legislature, that seeks to compel state universities to comply with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, potentially endangering the status of immigrant students. Such measures often receive little attention, making it all the more important to engage with local congressmen on them.
This approach — blocking funding; coordinating with dissenters on the right; contesting local elections; and engaging citizens to be more proactive — applies not just to the battle against Jeff Sessions. Indeed, it must be the blueprint for the Democrats for the long four years ahead.