By Matt Zapotosky and Sari Horwitz
The Washington Post
As Attorney General Jeff Sessions began testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, legislators signaled they hoped to question the country’s top law enforcement officer on a wide range of topics, including homegrown terrorism, the rise in opioid deaths and the firing of FBI director James B. Comey.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she also hopes to question Sessions about how he has shifted the department’s position in voting rights cases and on protections for LGBT people. Lawmakers are also likely to question Sessions on why the department he now leads had previously supported legislation that some now say undermined the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to stem the flow of pain pills.
Sessions’s appearance at the Judiciary Committee’s regular Justice Department oversight hearing will offer senators from both political parties the opportunity to grill their former colleague, who now serves as the nation’s top law enforcement official. The hearing is the first time Sessions has appeared before the committee since his confirmation hearing in January.
The committee chairman, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), said he had not insisted the attorney general come sooner because he had hoped Sessions would have more of his leadership team in place first.
Sessions has taken the department in a significantly different direction than did his predecessors in the Obama administration, and he is sure to be asked to justify many of his recent decisions — especially on his interpretation of federal law as it relates to the DACA program, the Affordable Care Act and discrimination against transgender people.
Sessions was the public face of the decision to wind down the DACA program, which granted a reprieve from deportation to people who came to the U.S. without documentation when they were children. He has asserted the program could not withstand legal challenges.
Sessions also laid out the legal underpinnings for the Trump administration to create broad exceptions to the Affordable Care Act’s no-cost contraceptive coverage, and he paved the way for another decision days later to stop certain payments to insurers under the act.
Legislators, who could get involved to save DACA or replace or in some way change the Affordable Care Act, are likely to press the attorney general on how he came to the legal conclusions that he did, and to what extent his and his department’s assertions about the law might have been influenced by the president’s policy agenda or his own political views.
Democrats also have warned Sessions they expect him to answer questions about his conversations with President Trump, especially as they might relate to the firing of Comey and the ongoing investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential race.
Sessions is recused from that case and, at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in June, he refused to detail his conversations with the president. But Democrats have questioned his rationale for not providing at least some information. In a letter to Sessions last week, they said the attorney general needed to formally identify the topics over which Trump would assert executive privilege — and Sessions thus could not address — and fully answer questions about the others.
“We expect that when you appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 18th, you will have determined whether the president will invoke executive privilege as to specific topics and will be prepared to answer completely all questions in those areas on which he has not,” the Democrats wrote. “As to the former category, we will expect you to provide the Committee with a list of issues over which the privilege has affirmatively been asserted.”
Civil liberties advocates said they hope legislators press, too, on the ways in which — in their view — Sessions has rolled back protections for LGBT people and diminished the department’s emphasis on police reform across the country.
The attorney general this month issued a memo opining that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect transgender people from workplace discrimination, and his Justice Department came down on the side of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. Civil liberties advocates say his recent memo offering guidance on religious freedom essentially amounts to a license for discrimination. Under his leadership, the department dropped its long-standing position that Texas intended to discriminate when it passed a strict voter-ID law.
Sessions, too, has ordered lawyers in his department to review all reform agreements it has with police departments nationwide, and he has implemented a sweeping new charging policy that instructs prosecutors to pursue the most serious, readily provable crimes, even if those might trigger stiff mandatory minimum sentences. He has been especially aggressive in cracking down on illegal immigration — even threatening to take certain grant money from certain so-called “sanctuary cities,” though his efforts to do so have largely been blocked by federal courts.
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