Racially Charged Remarks Derailed Trump's Attorney General Nominee 30 Years Ago

Nov 18, 2016
Originally published on November 20, 2016 3:28 pm

President-elect Trump's selection of Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be attorney general is stirring old memories-about his first failed foray on the national political scene.

In 1986, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions, nominated by Republican President Reagan to be a a federal judge, after he acknowledged making racially insensitive remarks and calling the NAACP, the ACLU, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and the National Council of Churches "un-American."

It was the first time that the committee had rejected a lower-court nomination in nearly a half-century, and it came, amazingly, at a time when Republicans controlled the Senate.

The vote to reject the nomination was 10-8, with two Republicans joining all eight Democrats on the committee, to defeat the nomination after more than 20 hours of hearings.

In many ways, it was fellow Alabamian Howell Heflin, the former chief justice of the state, and a conservative Democrat, who cast the decisive vote against Sessions.

'I must vote no'

The "overriding inquiry," Heflin said, is "will Jeff Sessions be a fair and impartial judge? Frankly, I have to say I don't know."

But "fairness and impartiality go to the very heart of our justice system," Heflin continued, and "as long as I have reasonable doubts, my conscience is not clear, and I must vote no."

The dramatic vote capped two sets of hearings over several months, and testimony from Sessions that changed significantly over time. At issue were Sessions' racial attitudes in comments expressed to a variety of people, and a prosecution he brought as U.S. Attorney against three civil rights leaders for alleged voter fraud.

A jury of seven blacks and five whites subsequently acquitted all three after deliberating for just three hours, and civil rights groups charged that the prosecution had been aimed at intimidating black voters, who in the previous election had turned out in record numbers.

The KKK 'OK' ... except for the pot-smokers

For years, Democrats had held back in their opposition to Reagan's attempt to reshape the judiciary, treating it as a back-burner issue. But in Sessions they saw a target-rich environment. And the Reagan administration knew it. After initially refusing to allow Justice Department lawyers who had worked with Sessions to testify, the department relented, only to hear career attorneys testify about racially-tinged remarks Sessions had made.

Sessions maintained that he was just "joking" when he said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was "OK" until he found out its members smoked pot. He denied ever bringing a prosecution in order to discourage black voters from casting ballots.

But Sessions made so many damaging admissions at his March hearing that Republicans called a second round of hearings in May, and at that second hearing, his answers changed so significantly that he faced credibility questions.

White civil-rights lawyer 'a disgrace to his race'

In March, asked about testimony that he had characterized a white civil rights lawyer as "a disgrace to his race," the nominee replied, "Trying to recollect on it, the best I could recall was I said, 'Well, he's not that popular around town. I've heard him referred to as 'a disgrace to his race.' "

In May, however, he said, "I am absolutely convinced that I did not call Mr. Blacksher a disgrace to his race, and I did not acknowledge it in any form."

In March, two lawyers, including a 13-year Justice Department veteran, testified that Sessions had referred to the NAACP, the National Council of Churches, the ACLU, and other groups as communist-inspired and "un-American." Sessions conceded that he had made such remarks.

"It's probably something I shouldn't have said," Sessions said then. "But I really didn't mean any harm."

He went on to explain that he had not actually meant these groups were un-American but that "they take positions that are considered un-American," and thus "hurt themselves" and "lose credibility."

But by the May hearing, Sessions proclaimed that these organizations "are essential in a pluralistic society. ... quintessentially American organizations. They are not un-American organizations."

Under questioning from then-Sen. Joseph Biden, Sessions maintained that these organizations may have taken positions "adverse to the security of the United States," but if you hold such views "in good faith, you are not an un-American person ... or organization."

'I am not a racist'

Sessions sought to explain his changed answers by saying he had been taken by surprise at the previous hearing. But under further questioning from Biden, he conceded that he had been informed well in advance of the March hearing about all the controversial areas on which he would be questioned.

In a final plea, he told the committee, "I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create; I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks. I supported civil rights activity in my state. I have done my job with integrity, equality and fairness for all."

His answers, however, seemed to add a credibility problem to his troubles.

As a pained Sen. Heflin put it in harking back to his experience as a judge, these "admissions, explanations, partial admissions" leave one "in a quandary."

On that day in 1986, Sessions would lose his fight to be a federal judge. But 10 years later, in a moment of exquisite irony, he would win the election in Alabama to succeed the retiring Heflin.

He has served in the Senate for 20 years, earning the respect, if not the agreement of some of his liberal adversaries. This year, he was the first — and for many many months, the only — U.S. senator to endorse Trump for president.

In the GOP primary and general election campaign, he campaigned hard for Trump, gaining increasing influence with the nominee and the now president-elect.

And on Friday, Trump picked Sessions to serve as the nation's chief law enforcement officer.

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