The U.S. Senate confirmed President Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee Wednesday, after more than a day of heated debate and a dramatic confrontation that led to the suspension of a prominent Democrat from floor deliberations.
The 52-47 vote made Jeff Sessions, a long-serving Republican senator from Alabama, America’s top law enforcement officer and the sixth Trump Cabinet pick approved in the fledgling administration.
“This is a special honor,” Sessions told his colleagues in a farewell speech after the vote. “I hope and pray I can be worthy of the trust you’ve given me. I’ll do my best to do that.”
“We all know him to be a man of deep integrity, a man of his word, and a man committed to fairness, to justice, and most importantly to the rule of law,” said the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
An early and ardent Trump supporter during last year’s tumultuous campaign, Sessions pledged to put the law above politics as attorney general.
“You simply have to help the president do things that he might desire in a lawful way, and have to be able to say ‘no’ [to the president],” the nominee said at his confirmation hearing last month.
Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Democrats said they were unconvinced.
“We have a president who wants to bring back torture,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “And we have a nominee for attorney general who is anything but independent. He was part and parcel of the Trump campaign apparatus.
“There’s attack after attack after attack [by Trump] on minorities, on immigrants, on Muslims, on women, on his critics, on judges, on the press, and even on truth itself,” Feinstein added. “Now more than ever, it is important that the Department of Justice be independent from the president.”
Republicans noted that Trump is hardly the first president to name backers and close confidants to his administration.
“This idea that Senator Sessions was close to President Trump during the campaign and that’s somehow a disqualifier makes absolutely zero sense to me,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “That’s exactly the kind of people you’d expect a president to pick: someone who has been on their team, someone they know.”
Sessions served in the Senate for 20 years and also was attorney general for the state of Alabama as well as a federal prosecutor. In 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan tapped him to be a federal judge, but the Senate voted down his nomination amid allegations of racial bias in his past.
Echoes of that debate more than 30 years ago reverberated Tuesday, when Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts read a letter from the late wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. opposing Sessions for the federal bench.
“Mr. Sessions ignored allegations of similar behavior by whites, choosing instead to chill the exercise of the franchise by blacks,’” Warren said, reading the letter word-for-word.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, interrupted her remarks moments later.
“The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” McConnell said.
“Objection is heard, the senator [Warren] will take her seat,” said the presiding officer, Republican Senator Steve Daines of Montana.
Warren challenged the finding, forcing a vote on the dispute by the full Senate. A unified Republican caucus voted that Warren broke Senate rules on decorum and therefore was barred from speaking further on the nominee.
“We have rules around here, and the rules are very clear that you don’t impugn another senator,” said Idaho Republican James Risch.
“Let us not go down this path,” said Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. “It’s not good for democracy. And it sure as heck is not good for free speech.”
Republicans stood their ground, saying America benefits when congressional debate is free of personal attacks.
“Turn on the news and watch these parliaments around the world where people throw chairs at each other, and punches,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. “And ask yourself: how does that make you feel about those countries?”
Donald Trump promised to be a law-and-order president. His new attorney general made clear during his confirmation hearing that he remains a hardliner on thorny topics like illegal immigration.
“If you continually go through a cycle of amnesty [for the undocumented], that you undermine the respect for the law and encourage more illegal immigration into America,” Sessions said.
More than 30 years after the Senate turned him down for a judgeship, the same body confirmed him for a far weightier post. He takes over at the helm of the Justice Department that defended numerous initiatives Trump has pledged to undo.