WASHINGTON, D.C.—At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions did a commendable job keeping up a steady and smooth defense of his nomination to be President elect Donald Trump’s attorney general. Sessions disavowed the most egregious elements of Trump’s attacks on the Constitution, including rejecting the idea of a Muslim registry or surveillance of mosques. He also affirmed that Roe v. Wade is established—although “colossally erroneous”—law, and he offered that he would recuse himself from any investigation involving Hillary Clinton, based on comments he made during the campaign. That promised investigation, Trump has already said, will not happen.
For hours on end, Sessions rebuffed, usually extremely deftly, forceful questioning from Senate Democrats about controversial statements he has made about the Voting Rights Act, his history with civil rights litigation, and his refusal to support legislation punishing violence against women. He confirmed that grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent constitutes sexual assault, and that he has no plans to vote on his own nomination. But there was one especially revelatory exchange, which exposed a larger truth about the nomination process and about Sessions himself. These hearings are a way for figures with views many of us would find reprehensible to attempt to mask them from public scrutiny. Once in a while, they accidentally confirm your worst fears anyhow.
In what seemed to be the only moment gobsmacking enough to bring the Senate chamber to almost complete silence, in the late afternoon Sessions had this terse exchange with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
Whitehouse suggested that lists were already circulating suggesting there might be purges or demotions of certain career appointees in the Justice Department. Whitehouse wondered whether Sessions would have a problem with career lawyers “with secular beliefs,” having in the past criticized department attorneys for being secular. Sessions replied that he has used that language about secular attorneys to differentiate between people who recognize objective “truth” and those who take positions “in which truth is not sufficiently respected.”
Whitehouse replied, with a leading, and perhaps slightly conclusory question: “And a secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious, correct?” At which point Sessions responded, “Well, I’m not sure.” For a few seconds the Senate chamber seemed to go completely silent.
Sessions was quick to reiterate that he doesn’t believe in religious tests, and Whitehouse moved on to questions about whether Sessions could be persuaded to abandon the GOP denial of global warming. (He says he can.) But it was one of the very few moments in which Sessions’ deft denials of prior positions and statements veered completely off script. It spoke to the levels of obfuscation that are now customary in such confirmation hearings, especially about matters of faith, and the degree to which hearings become theater in which little true about the nominees and their most deeply felt positions are revealed. It also demonstrated that the views that Sessions is hiding are absolutely inimical to the democratic values of many members of the Senate and a large portion of the country.
For the rest of the day, Sessions simply disavowed racially inflammatory statements that had derailed his confirmation hearing in 1986 with the claim that they were “damnably false charges,” and that he had been unprepared for the character attacks in the earlier hearing. He denied any and all claims that he was a racist, and he may have even invented a new election-era claim of merely being racist-adjacent. He offered that he didn’t have to disavow all the views of the groups that had given him awards, or the individuals he has praised, if those organizations held bigoted ideas. Several did, as Sen. Richard Blumenthal pointed out. Also, he didn’t chant “lock her up” during the many Trump events he attended as a campaign surrogate; he merely heard the shout and believed it was being “humorously done.”
Asked why he voted against congressional efforts to address voting rights, and violence against women, and immigration reform, Sessions said he was entitled to his votes and his views. Asked about the consensus of law enforcement and intelligence agencies—including the Federal Bureau of Investigation that will be under his oversight—that Russia attempted to meddle in this election to the benefit of his soon-to-be boss, Sessions suggested it was a political or diplomatic problem and not a law-enforcement one. Indeed toward the end of the evening, Sen. Al Franken essentially asked, in light of Tuesday’s revelations about allegations that Russia has damning information on Trump: Why isn’t Trump concerned about any of this? Sessions replied that a lot of untrue things have been said about Trump and he hasn’t been briefed on the Russian hacks that were meant to influence our electoral process.
Sen. Franken ended his questioning by noting that Sessions has been open to the idea of a Muslim ban, and has spoken about Muslim children being susceptible to committing terrorism. Franken offered that he has had to talk to Somali schoolchildren in Minnesota who do not understand what to make of a country that elects a man stirring up fear. It was one of the more poignant moments of the day.
Sessions’ defenders on the Republican side of the aisle, meanwhile, evinced horror that a good man could be tarred as a racist. Sen. John Cornyn went so far as to bust out the KellyAnne Conway defense by insisting that “We know your heart.” Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz sympathized with what it’s like be branded a racist. (Conclusion: It doesn’t feel good.)
Meanwhile, Democrats attempted to address the actual root of these charges and allegations that Sessions was not being honest enough with the committee to be trusted as attorney general. Franken and Blumenthal roughed Sessions up over claims Sessions made about civil rights cases that may have been inflated, items missing in his disclosures, and the aforementioned support from questionable groups. But for the most part, Senate Democrats seemed mainly to be laying down markers about press freedoms, women’s rights, and deportations in the Trump era. Sessions was nimble in his defense of himself as a protector of the Constitution, the rule of law, and impartial law enforcement. He was clear that he was pro-life but would punish anyone trying to obstruct a woman seeking to access clinics, and that he deplored a few bad actors in the police departments, but believes deeply in the need to support the police.
As one protester after another was dragged out of the chamber this morning, they shouted questions about the next administration’s potential for tough stances against minor drug offenders, how it might mistreat Muslims, and tear apart immigrant families, and other examples of the most vile aspects of the Trump-Sessions worldview. But at the front of the room Sessions deflected these critiques with claims that any statements indicating out-of-the-mainstream viewpoints were either not accurately represented; made during a “contentious campaign”; or political statements made by a senator. Again, the only moment during which the mask seemed to slip was in that exchange with Sen. Whitehouse about whether secular people are capable of knowing the truth.
In a deep sense the language of religious morality has crept into this transition period with arguments that words spoken have no real meaning anymore, and that nobody—save, perhaps God—can know what is truly in a man’s heart. Sessions inadvertently conceded Tuesday that people of God are closer to truth, including those who happen to be at the Justice Department he’s almost certainly going to lead. Nobody in the chamber knew what to do with that statement. But as is the case with the very finest gaffes, this was the moment that revealed both why Jeff Sessions will be handily confirmed, and also why Democrats are rightly very, very afraid.