WASHINGTON (CNN) — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker gave an impassioned and unprecedented plea to the Senate on Wednesday to vote against Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general and his fellow senator, Jeff Sessions.
Booker delivered an emotional five minutes of testimony flanked by members of the Congressional Black Caucus that Sessions’ record on civil rights disqualifies him from serving atop the Justice Department under President-elect Trump.
“The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve toward justice, we must bend it,” Booker said. “America needs an attorney general who is resolute and determined to bend the arc. Sen. Sessions record does not speak to that desire, intention or will.”
Booker became the first sitting senator to testify against a fellow sitting senator at a confirmation hearing for a Cabinet position. His panel with other lawmakers and supporters of Sessions was added to the hearings at the request of the top Democrat on the committee, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Testimony from Booker, civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis and Rep. Cedric Richmond against Sessions was the emotional finale of two days of hearings that returned repeatedly to the issue of race relations and civil rights in the United States.
Both Sessions’ supporters and detractors were at times passionate in their position. Sessions and his backers defended his record as the victim of character assassination, saying that the events of his unsuccessful 1986 confirmation hearing to be a federal judge were being unfairly misconstrued 30 years later to malign a man with a record of fighting for civil rights.
The Democrats and civil rights activists who testified, however, said that the record from the ’80s not only stood today, but that Sessions has shown a pattern of disregard for the at-risk members of society throughout his time in the Senate.
Democrats failed to land any knockout blows on Session during the hearing, with the Republicans on the committee unanimously coming to his defense as a fair enforcer of the law. The came closest when Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken questioned Sessions on exaggerating his civil rights record in past statements and his Senate questionnaire.
But the committee also treated Sessions with respect and warmness as a fellow colleague, a fact noted by his former staffer on the Judiciary Committee, William Smith.
“Members of this committee know Sen. Sessions … is fair and honest,” Smith said. “After 20 years of knowing Sen. Sessions, I have not seen the slightest evidence of racism because it does not exist. I know a racist when I see one, and I have seen more than one. Sen. Sessions is not one.”
Sessions will likely be confirmed by the GOP majority Senate.
Booker, Lewis give emotional testimony
Booker’s decision to testify has thrust him — already a fixture on lists of potential 2020 presidential candidates — into the limelight.
Booker said his “conscience” and “country” motivated him to speak out, even though he acknowledged he has enjoyed “collegiality” with Sessions, working on a bill to give the Congressional Gold Medal to civil rights marchers.
“Law and order without justice is unobtainable,” Booker said. “They are inextricably tied together. If there is no justice, there is no peace.”
Booker said Sessions would not achieve the needs of the Justice Department in protecting civil rights.
“In many times in his career, he has demonstrated a hostility toward these convictions,” Booker said.
Lewis also testified against Sessions, citing his experience and history of the civil rights movement.
“It doesn’t matter how Sen. Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you, but we need someone who’s going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people who need help, for people who have been discriminated against,” Lewis said.
“We all live in the same house — the American house. We need someone as attorney general who is going to look out for all of us and not just for some of us,” he added.
Richmond said the Congressional Black Caucus also opposed the nomination, and added his objection to the fact that he, Lewis and Booker were not given the courtesy of testifying earlier in the proceedings.
“To have a senator, a House member and a living civil rights legend testify at the end of all of this is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus,” Richmond said.
Sessions allies who have previously worked with him testified on his behalf, saying the media portrayal of Sessions during the hearing doesn’t match their experience.
“One of the things I can say about Jeff is that he’s always been the same person that I’ve known,” said Willie Huntley, a former assistant United States attorney in Alabama. “He’s always been available for me and always been there when I needed him. At no point in the time that I’ve known Jeff has he demonstrated any racial insensitivity.”