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Who's The Real Jeff Sessions? Two Hearings In 1986 Show A Conflicting Picture

Sen. Jeff Sessions is expected to face a tough confirmation hearing to be Donald Trump's attorney general.closemore
Sen. Jeff Sessions is expected to face a tough confirmation hearing to be Donald Trump's attorney general.

Confirmation controversies kick off when the Senate Judiciary Committee convenes hearings Tuesday on the nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general.

Sessions has repeatedly amended the Senate questionnaire he submitted to the committee last month. Among the changes is his answer to a question asking the nominee to list any "unsuccessful nominations for appointive office." In his original answer, Sessions failed to list the fact that the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected his nomination to be a federal judge 30 years ago.

Tuesday's hearing will almost certainly feature two accounts of the 1986 hearings, and oddly enough, both will be true. That's because there were two sets of hearings — one that extended over three days and went so badly that Sessions appeared to be finished; and a second a month later, called at the insistence of Sessions' chief Senate supporter.


Damaging admissions, then an about-face

At the first round of hearings in March 1986, Sessions made a number of damaging admissions. A month later, in April, he changed his testimony.

"Disgrace to his race" vs. "I did not acknowledge it in any form"

In March, for instance, he agreed that he had referred to a white civil rights lawyer as a "disgrace to his race."

Sessions said that his best recollection was that he'd said, "Well he's not that popular around town. I've heard him referred to as 'a disgrace to his race.' "

But a month later, Sessions changed his story.

"I am absolutely convinced that I did not call Mr. Blackshear a disgrace to his race, and I did not acknowledge it in any form," Sessions declared.

Civil-rights groups "un-American" or "quintessentially American"?

In March, Sessions conceded that he had referred to the NAACP, the National Council of Churches, and the ACLU as "Communist-inspired" and "un-American." He admitted that was, as he put it, sometimes "loose with my tongue."

"That's probably something I shouldn't have said, but I really didn't mean any harm," he added.

At his second hearing, however, Sessions contradicted his earlier testimony.

"I know what I believe about these organizations," he said, asserting that "they are quintessentially American organizations; they are not un-American organizations."

Joe Biden, then a senator on the committee, pressed the point, asking, "Are you telling us that you, Jeff Sessions, at no time, [have] concluded that the National Council of Churches has engaged in un-American activities?"

"My opinion is they have not," Sessions replied. "They may have taken positions that I consider to be adverse to the security interests of the United States," but in response to further questions, he said that does not make the organizations or their positions "un-American."

An incredulous Biden followed up: "So you can have a position adverse to security interests of the United States and not be un-American; is that what you're saying?"

"Well, I, if you hold it in good faith, you're not an un-American person or an un-American organization. No sir," Sessions replied.


"I am not a racist; I am not insensitive to blacks"

Sessions tried to explain the reason for some of his changed answers by saying he had been taken by surprise in March. But under examination by Biden, he conceded that he had been informed well in advance about all the controversial areas of questioning.

Still, Sessions said, the first round of hearings had left the wrong impression.

"I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create," he proclaimed, his voice rising. "I am not a racist; I am not insensitive to blacks; I supported civil rights activities in my state. I have done my job with integrity, equality, and fairness for all."

It's a rare thing for the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote down a judicial nomination. Indeed, back in 1986 it was only the second time in nearly a half-century that the committee had vetoed a federal district court nominee. Two moderate Republicans joined the committee's Democrats to kill the nomination in committee.

But that was 30 years ago. Sessions' chances for confirmation now are a lot better.

After the 1986 rejection, Sessions remained the chief federal prosecutor in Alabama for five more years. Soon after, he was elected state attorney general, and two years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he was re-elected three times, earned a reputation as one of the body's most conservative members, and for much of 2016 was the only Republican senator to endorse Donald Trump.

Sessions is personally well-liked by colleagues on both sides of the aisle and of various political stripes. Indeed, one of the senators introducing him, and vouching for him on Tuesday, will be Maine's moderate Republican Susan Collins, who has a voting record far less conservative than his.

Copyright NPR 2017.

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