Christopher Kang’s kitchen table in Virginia turned into a rapid response center of sorts for the groups that oppose Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be attorney general.
The former Obama White House aide spent six hours there on a Saturday earlier this month, digging up omissions in the Alabama Republican’s biographical paperwork that the Senate had released late the previous night. Kang emailed assignments to about two dozen volunteers ready to do the same, pointing out what might be missing in the documents and coordinating to avoid overlap as much as possible.
The resulting 200-hour effort over the next four days culminated in a 10-page memo listing what Sessions didn’t say about his past, released Dec. 14 in a blitz of press alerts and social media posts. Groups such as People For the American Way, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Alliance for Justice called for a delay of the Jan. 10-11 confirmation hearings because of what they called Sessions’ “shockingly incomplete” accounting of his speeches and interviews.
It was an unofficial kickoff for the role interest groups on both sides will play in the Senate confirmation process — echoing and amplifying the criticism or support from lawmakers when it comes to some of President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial nominees. And it’s an indication of how the sides will parry early next year as Senate Republicans press forward and Senate Democrats push back as much as they can — including on a forthcoming Supreme Court nomination.
“I should have taken more breaks and I should have stretched more,” Kang said of the rapid response. “Getting a more comfortable chair is on my list of things I want for Christmas now.”
The confirmation fight over Sessions, 69, is likely to be among the most contentious. Sessions would have broad sway over federal law enforcement and criminal prosecution, touching on everything from civil rights to voting rights. Democrats want time to explore all those issues at his hearings.
Parsing His Record
Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley reiterated his intention in a letter earlier this month to keep the Sessions’ hearings on schedule. The Iowa Republican has said he hopes to avoid hearings that become “what some liberal interest groups are clearly hoping for — an attack on his character.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel’s incoming top Democrat, had expressed concerns that many speeches given on behalf of then-candidate Trump were missing among the voluminous materials submitted with Sessions’ questionnaire covering his work history and public statements. Kang and the progressive groups seized on the same themes, comparing what Sessions reported with their own previous research.
Kang, the national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, saw plenty of Senate questionnaires working on judicial nominations in the Obama administration, and said there were clear gaps in Sessions’ documentation. For example, Sessions listed only 10 media interviews, four speeches outside the U.S. Senate, two op-ed columns and an academic article from 1981 to 2002 — a time period where it might be difficult to find records of what he said publicly unless he discloses it.
“I never would have imagined there would have been two decades of time where the record’s almost completely missing,” Kang said. “This is not an effort to find what’s missing, although it’s a byproduct, it’s an effort to find out about his record.”
Among numerous omissions, the groups found Sessions did not include speeches at events in 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2014 for the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as run by “an anti-Muslim extremist.” Also missing: His news conference with the Center for Immigration Studies, which the Law Center calls “anti-immigrant.”
Marge Baker, executive vice president of People For the American Way, said the groups are making plans to further spread their alarm about Sessions on enforcing civil rights laws.
“I think people have this gut sense that across the board he’s ideologically driven,” Baker said of Sessions. “This is the person’s whose portfolio is protecting the rights of people across the country.”
An Untold Story
Conservative groups are mobilizing around the Sessions nomination, too. The Judicial Crisis Network last week unveiled a website — confirmsessions.com — with the lawmaker’s biography, a video about him and information about his past cases and work.
Previously, the Judicial Crisis Network has spent millions of dollars on TV and digital advertisements on confirmation issues, in addition to coordinating with conservative groups across the nation. Last month the group announced $500,000 in advertisements in Washington, New York City and Florida to thank Trump for his commitment to fill the Supreme Court vacancy with a conservative justice.
The group plans to tell a story about Sessions’ legislative and legal accomplishments on the website that has so far not appeared in the media, said Carrie Severino, the group’s chief counsel and policy director and a former law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas.
So far, the news media has focused on Sessions’ failed nomination to be a federal judge in 1986, and Democrats want to rehash that topic, Severino said. Back then, two Republican senators crossed party lines to oppose confirmation and Sessions’ nomination was withdrawn.
Witnesses testified that Sessions had called major civil rights organizations “un-American,” used racially insensitive language with associates and said smoking pot was the only reason he no longer thought the Ku Klux Klan was OK. Sessions denied he was racist.
Sessions later was elected to the Senate in 1996, and serves on the same Judiciary Committee that will consider his nomination. “I think it’s pure partisan politics,” Severino said of calls for delaying the hearings. “They know this guy.”
That echoes the sentiment of Grassley, who said in a statement that “any suggestion that a nominee’s good faith efforts to locate and produce responsive material is cause for delay begins to look like a call for delay for delay’s sake, rather than a thorough review of a colleague’s character and qualifications.”
Advice and Consent
But in the research game, the other side can often find statements from longtime lawmakers that cut against their current position.
Kyle Barry, policy counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, highlighted in a Medium post a 2010 letter from Sessions about how completely a judicial nominee filled out the Senate committee questionnaire.
At the time, Sessions sought to postpone the nominee’s hearing to maintain the integrity of the Senate’s advice and consent responsibilities, Barry wrote.
“Sessions said that the failure to report a full list of speeches, panel discussions, and publications showed ‘extraordinary disregard for the Committee’s constitutional role,’ and an ‘unwillingness to take seriously [the] obligation to complete these basic forms’ that ‘is potentially disqualifying,’” Barry wrote.
“In other words, Sessions omitted the very sort of material that he once deemed essential before a confirmation hearing could take place.”
Whether it will change anything is another question. Grassley, who can be cantankerous, appears to have dug in his heels on the timing of the Sessions hearing.
Sessions could be confirmed with just the support of his fellow Republicans in the Senate — since a simple majority is all that is required — and none of 51 other Republicans have expressed publicly any concern.