The Senate confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees for Attorney General, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson began the week of January 9. As expected, Sessions and Tillerson were respectfully subjected to a grilling from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The confirmation hearings were also accompanied by citizen protesters who loudly voiced their opposition to the President-elect’s selections for “top cop” and “top diplomat”.
The controversy surrounding the Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions largely stems from the perception that the gentleman from Alabama, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, is a racist. The seeds for this racist persona have been germinating since 1986 when Sessions, a 39-year-old US attorney, was denied a federal judgeship because he had allegedly made racist comments in the past and had also prosecuted a voter fraud case against an African-American. Sessions’ supporters have endeavored to debunk the racist charge by pointing out that Sessions successfully prosecuted and implemented the death penalty for a Ku Klux Klan member who had killed a black teenager. Sessions also had a track record of desegregating schools during his tenure as Alabama Attorney General.
Tillerson’s nomination is even more controversial than Sessions’ in that he is the first Secretary of State nominee without any government experience. Tillerson has spent his entire career at Exxon Mobil, working his way up from a Production Engineer position which he assumed in 1975 to the CEO seat which he now holds. Tillerson’s nomination has drawn criticism from both the right and the left due to Exxon Mobil’s significant business dealings with Russia and Tillerson’s seemingly cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition, Tillerson who favors fracking and other efforts towards US oil independence is also the target of radical environmentalists who perceive his policies to be detrimental to our country’s natural resources.
Against all odds, both Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions and Secretary State nominee Rex Tillerson delivered strong performances during their respective confirmation hearings. Sessions addressed the “racist” accusations head on when he made the comment, “I was accused in 1986 of failing to protect the voting rights of African Americans…and of condemning civil rights advocates and organizations and even harboring — amazingly — sympathetic views for the KKK,” Sessions said. “These are damnably false charges.”
Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) also made an unprecedented move by delivering a heated opposition to Sessions’ nomination on day two of the confirmation process. “Senator Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requisite of the job [of attorney general] — to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights and justice for all of our citizens,” Booker commented. Republicans including Senator Tom Cotton (Arkansas) did not appreciate Booker’s grandstanding, writing on Facebook that he was “disappointed” Booker “has chosen to start his 2020 presidential campaign by testifying against Senator Sessions.”
Sessions maintained his composure during Booker’s remarks and during various hot potato questioning scenarios from other Senate colleagues. When responding to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) who commented, “This hearing must determine clearly whether this senator will enforce laws he votes against”, Sessions stated that he is “totally committed” to maintaining the progress which the country has made on minority rights. Sessions, who is opposed to abortion and same sex marriage also claimed that he would follow the Supreme Court rulings on these matters regardless of his personal belief system. When asked about his past comments about the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade, Sessions responded “It is the law of the land, it has been settled for some time,” Sessions said. “I will respect it and follow it.”
Throughout the hearing, Sessions was repeatedly asked if he would, if confirmed as Attorney General, have the ability to say “no” to the President. Sessions repeatedly responded that he would provide counsel, including conveying disagreement. Sessions expressed his ability to disagree with President-elect Trump on certain issues including Trump’s previously articulated ban on Muslim immigration. “I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States,” Sessions remarked. Sessions surprised the committee by stating that he would recuse himself from any cases involving either the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails or the Clinton Foundation. Sessions’ approach is a departure from that of current Attorney General Loretta Lynch who had said that she would defer to the FBI on any matters dealing with the Clinton email case in the wake of her meeting with former President Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac last summer.
Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson also demonstrated that he could withstand the heat in the kitchen during his confirmation hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Tillerson faced an even tougher hearing than Sessions did. After all, Sessions is a sitting Senator with friends in the Senate. Tillerson, a forty-year veteran of the Exxon Mobil is the first Secretary of State nominee without any government experience. Trump’s nomination of the Texas businessman was greeted with criticism and skepticism from both sides of the aisle.However.in his opening remarks Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker who was also on the short list for Secretary of State, made the comment that he believes, like Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, “it is very possible that you are an inspired choice”. Tillerson, who was a Boy Scout who later served as the President of the Boy Scouts of America, spoke of the importance of the Boy Scout code of honor in the early part of his personal statement.
Tillerson was extremely well prepared for the aggressive line of questioning he received. One of the toughest series of exchanges was with Republican Senator Marco Rubio (Florida), who was one of Trump’s opponents in the 2016 presidential primary. Rubio asked Tillerson, who has significant business dealings in Russia and was awarded “Russia’s Order of Friendship” from Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?” Tillerson responded by saying “I would not use that term” and that he does not have access to classified information. Rubio countered by saying that the evidence that Putin had conducted war crimes in Aleppo, Syria against private citizens was fully within the public domain. Tillerson continued to dig in his heels. After Rubio commented that he was “disappointed” with Tillerson’s comments, Chairmen Corker interjected, once again, and in essence asked if what Senator Rubio says is true about President Putin would you consider him a “war criminal”. At that point, Tillerson conceded that he would then say that Putin had behaved like a “war criminal”. Tillerson also stopped short of advocating for sanctions against Russia. Tillerson stood his ground on the environmental questions saying that, while he acknowledges the existence of the climate change phenomenon, he does not view it as national security threat in the near future.
Like Sessions, Tillerson conveyed that he had the ability to part company with President-elect Trump on issues including the Muslim ban saying, “I am not supporting a blanket rejection of any particular group of people”. Tillerson also stated that if he was Secretary of State when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, he would have supported arming the Crimeans, a position which contradicts that of Trump. Tillerson also stated that he is not opposed to the Transpacific Partnership, which Trump proactively opposed while on the campaign trail.
Attorney General nominee Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State nominee Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson both clearly demonstrated that they are individuals with impressive track records who have the fortitude to hold their own not only during a tough senate confirmation process but more importantly as leaders within President-elect’s cabinet. They have the ability to provide counsel to the President, but to also tell him when they think he is on the wrong course. Sessions and Tillerson will never be “yes” men. They are just not built that way.
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