Democracy in Crisis
Senators shuffle by the desk on Tuesday to cast their votes on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, chattering like kids returning from summer break to find that everything has changed. Somehow even the victors seem confused. None of them really expected the world to look like this.
Except, maybe, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. He is standing toward the front of the Senate chambers, his hands behind his back, at ease. There is a grin on his face. He has just cast what will be his final vote as senator—to confirm DeVos.
Though he is not attorney general yet, he was instrumental in planning the flurry of authoritarian executive orders marking Trump’s first weeks in office, including the now-contested Muslim ban. Sessions wanted to go even harder, hoping for a “shock and awe” approach, overwhelming the opposition with the dramatic pace of change.
In a Washington Post story that called Sessions the “intellectual godfather” of “Trump’s hard-line actions,” the director of a conservative immigration think tank compared the Republican senator to a “guerrilla in the hinterlands preparing for the next hopeless assault on the government” who suddenly learns that “the capital has fallen.”
With his dark suit, white hair, and wrinkled white peach of a face, Sessions does not look like he’s spent much time training in the jungle. But he does seem surprised—stunned almost—that the next vote his colleagues cast will make him attorney general of the United States.
He walks slowly to his seat. Sitting down, he bows his head. His eyes seem to be closed, as if praying. He brings the tips of his fingers together, facing upward, on his lap.
A few moments later, he takes out a silver object and holds it gingerly between the first two fingers and thumbs of each hand, almost as if unwrapping foil on a stick of gum.
But it doesn’t seem to be gum—it’s impossible to tell what it is from the press gallery above the Senate floor—and he does not unwrap it, he just fingers it, his head bowed.
Then the vote is called. He puts away the silver object. It is 50 to 50.
As expected, Vice President Mike Pence confirms DeVos with a historic tie-breaking vote. It is a huge blow to anyone who cares about competency, public education or ethics in government. The Democrats spent the last 24 hours complaining about all of these issues, but that doesn’t matter now. They have no control. The whole process demonstrated that the new regime can do as it wishes on the Hill.
Across the room, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) acts like he is charging someone with a podium, making a clear reference to Melissa McCarthy’s “Saturday Night Live” skit satirizing Sean Spicer, the president’s communications director and press secretary.
Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina sit beside each other talking quietly, as if conspiring or gossiping. McCain says something and sucks his bottom lip. Graham scans the room from left to right.
Sessions gets up and looks around the room again before he heads toward the door.
Nevertheless, She Persisted
When he returns to the Senate later that day, Sessions is the nominee under consideration. He sits behind Majority Leader Mitch McConnell while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren quotes the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who called Sessions a “disgrace to the Justice Department” during a 1986 confirmation hearing, when Sessions was denied a federal judgeship because of allegations of racism.
Now Warren reads from a letter that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., sent to the Senate during that same failed confirmation.
“Mr. President. Mr. President,” McConnell interrupts, defending Sessions. “The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair. Senator Warren said, ‘Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.’”
“I call the senator to order under the provisions of Rule 19,” McConnell says.
The crazy thing about Rule 19, in this context, is that it was created in 1902, after the notorious white terrorist and Senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman beat up a colleague who had defected to the other side of a debate. Tillman founded a group called the Red Shirts, which terrorized African Americans as Reconstruction bled into Jim Crow. He was an early mentor of white supremacist Strom Thurmond, who, as the chair of the Senate’s judiciary committee, was the guy who both smashed Sessions’ hopes of becoming a federal judge and the guy who kept King’s 1986 letter out of the Senate record. When Warren read the letter, she was correcting Thurmond’s 30-year-old error.
So it is grimly fitting that McConnell, who has learned to manipulate the Senate in order to grab control of the judiciary for his party, cites Rule 19 to defend Jeff Sessions, the old-school law-and-order white supremacist who stuck around long enough to make it mainstream again.
During the exchange (in which McConnell now famously uttered the iconic sentences “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”), Sessions blows his nose, rubbing it with a handkerchief, making sure he gets it all, blowing again.
Nearly 24 hours later, McConnell uses the last few minutes of debate to offer a cornpone encomium to his departing colleague, calling Sessions a “true Southern gentleman,” like that’s an unquestionably good thing, eliding the difficult history connecting Sessions’ home state and the fight for civil rights.
Finally, in a Thursday morning ceremony, Pence swears in Sessions, who cites a “dangerous permanent trend” of increasing crime and pledges to end “lawlessness.” The trend lines on crime don’t back up his claims.
Like Sessions, Trump regularly exaggerates the increase in violent crime. He uses the occasion of Sessions’ swearing in to sign three executive orders that further empower the already vast police state, now overseen by Sessions.
Neither man mentions the epidemic of African Americans shot and killed by police.
“A new era of justice begins, and it begins right now,” Trump says.
Baynard Woods (@baynardwoods) is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper, and his column, Democracy in Crisis, will appear regularly in the Shepherd to provide original coverage of the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. You can listen to his weekly podcast at shepherdexpress.com.