US president Donald Trump officially has an attorney general. Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama, was confirmed by the Senate to head the US Department of Justice, giving him broad power to shape how the government protects civil rights and applies immigration laws. The 52-47 vote, held in the evening on Feb. 8, split along partisan lines.
The decision came after a series of contentious Senate hearings that painted two irreconcilable pictures of the same man.
Democrats spoke strongly against Sessions’ nomination, arguing he has not shown a commitment to defending vulnerable minorities. They also questioned whether Sessions, a staunch Trump supporter during the presidential campaign, will be able to stand up to his boss if he were to push unlawful policies.
The evening before the vote, Republicans formally silenced Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren under a rarely used parliamentary rule created more than a 100 years ago in response to a fist fight on the senate floor.
Warren, who represents Massachusetts, had been reading from a 1986 letter written by Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, sharply criticizing Sessions’ record on civil rights. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders read the letter in full the following morning, and demanded that Republicans apologize to Warren.
Republicans defended Trump’s pick as an upstanding public servant devoted to the law. ”Senator Sessions is here and is ready to serve the American people,” said his fellow senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. “He’s devoted to the rule of law and keeping our country safe, so it’s really been sad to see interest groups vilifying him over and over again.”
The attorney general’s independence has become a hot topic of debate after Trump’s firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, for refusing to defend the new president’s executive order on immigration.
During his confirmation hearing, Sessions vowed to follow the law and rein in the president if he were to propose anything illegal. Depending on how the judiciary rules on the immigration order, which is currently being contested in court, the first such potential conflict might be resolved before Sessions even has time to settle in at the Justice Department.