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The words "she persisted," released in a statement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have become a viral sensation. The statement came after McConnell invoked a rarely used Senate rule to shut down Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren Tuesday night, called Rule 19.
Though McConnell shut down Warren, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Tom Udall read the letter that she couldn't finish by the late Coretta Scott King.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: You persisted, why?
WARREN: I persisted because it was the right thing to do. I was doing my job. I went down to the floor of the U.S. Senate late yesterday in order to debate whether or not Jeff Sessions should be the next attorney general of the United States. What I wanted to do was read a letter from Coretta Scott King, who discussed what Jeff Sessions had done back in Alabama. In her letter she walks through his prosecution of civil rights workers. He prosecuted them when they were trying to help elderly African-Americans vote. This letter is powerful. It's a deeply moving, important historical document. Back in 1986, it helped move a Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee to reject his appointment as a federal judge.
CHAKRABARTI: But it's that very same letter that Republican senators last night felt was impugning Jeff Sessions, and that's the problem.
WARREN: Evidently what they seem to think what impugning means is just talking about the facts. I'll just read the little bit I got in trouble for. Coretta Scott King says, "Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote for black citizens." And that's when they shut me down.
CHAKRABARTI: Several Democratic male senators were allowed to enter the letter into the record and read parts of it. They were not interrupted. Rule 19 did not apply to them. What do you make of that?
WARREN: I don't know what to make of it, except to say I hope everyone reads Coretta Scott King's letter. It's a tangible reminder of what was going on in America not very long ago, and the kind of risks that people face today, and that they need to be able to count on an attorney general who will be on their side.
One of the points that King made in her letter is that Jeff Sessions managed with his federal prosecution to do what the local sheriffs accomplished [in the 1960s] with clubs and cattle prods. She says in her letter, many elderly blacks were visited multiple times by the FBI who hauled them 180 miles by bus to a grand jury in Mobile, when they more easily could have testified at a grand jury 20 miles away in Selma. And this is all under the direction of Jeff Sessions.
CHAKRABARTI: Before last night, very few people knew this letter existed. Do you think Sen. McConnell has done you a favor because now this letter is everywhere.
WARREN: I hope that millions of people read it. Democrats don't have the votes to stop Jeff Sessions. We didn't have the votes to stop Betsy DeVos for secretary of education. One of the things we have to count on is basic democracy, enough people across the country making their voices heard. That's the only thing that will help get some accountability back in this government. Getting this government working again, not for the rich and powerful like Jeff Sessions, but getting it working for the American people.
CHAKRABARTI: Rule 19 is almost never invoked.
WARREN: I'd never heard of it.
CHAKRABARTI: It's been in effect since the early 1900s and only invoked a tiny handful of times. Do you think Sen. McConnell was making it personal last night? Has the political tenor in Washington become that rancorous?
WARREN: For me this is less about political rancor, and more about power. This was Mitch McConnell, working with Donald Trump, to jam a set of nominees down the throats of the United States Senate, and the people of America. To say, "We can go with a secretary of education who doesn't believe in public education," "we can go with an attorney general who has made it clear who are trying to help elderly black citizens" --
CHAKRABARTI: But Sen. Warren, it is the president's right to nominate whomever he chooses. And it's the Senate's duty to debate that nominee. That's what's happening. The process is working.
WARREN: That's what I was trying to do. Mitch McConnell didn't stand up and say Coretta Scott King got the facts wrong. He stood up and said those facts and those conclusions are so terrible that even to whisper them on the floor of the United States Senate impugns Jeff Sessions. Think about that.
CHAKRABARTI: You are well known to bring heat an passion to anything you put your mind to. You famously said years ago that you were willing to leave "blood and teeth" on the floor in your fight for financial reform. But are we reaching a point now where that could backfire?
Here's why I ask. Sen. Orrin Hatch spoke after you did on Tuesday night, and he said he's "tired of her constant diatribe." He added, "I listened to her for quite a while and she didn’t have a good thing to say about a fellow senator here, and I frankly don’t think that’s right. If we don’t respect each other, we’re going down a very steep path to oblivion." Doesn't Sen. Hatch have a point?
WARREN: I think the right question is: What do you think respect means? Does it means covering up the facts? Does respect mean everyone just lines up and smiles and says, "Because he's a senator, we won't talk about his record? Because he's a senator we won't talk about his voting against the Violence Against Women Act? Because he's a senator we should not talk about the fact we may have an out of control president and it may be the attorney general that we Americans have to rely on to tell the president, 'No, you cannot enforce an unconstitutional or illegal order'?" Jeff Sessions is not that person.
I didn't hurl any ugly names. I didn't throw any invectives his way. I simply stated what I believe to be the facts and I quoted Coretta Scott King, who saw firsthand what it meant to have Jeff Sessions in a position power and what it meant for African-Americans who were trying to vote. I think that's a relevant issue.
As long as it's said as politely as I could, that's what democracy is about. That's what the Constitution is supposed to about. That's what it's supposed to mean to be in the United States Senate. That's why the people of Massachusetts sent me there. And that's the job I'm going to do.
This story aired on February 8, 2017.
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