Attorney General Jeff Sessions has entered his powerful and essential office at a time of division and partisan rancor that few of his recent predecessors as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer would have even imagined, much less envied. Perhaps more daunting still, Sessions begins his duties under the shadow of as many doubts about his suitability for the office as any attorney general in the modern era. Forty-seven of his fellow senators voted against his confirmation last week.
Two concerns seemed to most animate his critics. We urge the new attorney general to work quickly to show they misjudged him. First, many asked whether such an early and vocal supporter of candidate Donald Trump would say no, when necessary, to a president who’s shown such little patience for dissent, disagreement or even delay. Many also questioned whether Sessions, given his record as a lawmaker and federal prosecutor, would zealously enforce civil rights, voting rights and other laws, including the ban on the use of torture by intelligence agents.
To these questions, Sessions and his supporters — including both Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — provided ready answers. “I’ve had the honor of working closely with Jeff on the Senate Judiciary Committee since I came to the Senate, and I’m proud to call him a friend,” Cornyn said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Those who have watched him day in and day out understand his stalwart commitment to the rule of law and his deep and abiding concern for our country.”
As to whether he has sufficient backbone to stand up, if needed, to the president, Sessions himself provided the answer. Any attorney general, he said, “must be willing to tell the president or other top officials ‘no’ if he or they overreach. He or she cannot be a mere rubber stamp.”
We remain unconvinced that Sessions was the best choice for the office he now holds. And yet now that he is the nation’s 85th attorney general, we fervently hope these answers prove predictive, and that Sessions can be the leader at Justice he and his supporters insist he will be.
There is much more than politics riding on the effort.
Across government, the stakes seem hellishly high. Questions about war and peace and trade and human rights all are balanced precariously amid the thunder emanating from a White House bent on upsetting the status quo in half-a-hundred ways.
Yet no other Cabinet member stands as squarely in the center of this discord as Sessions. He must balance tensions between police officers and the communities they serve, between immigrants and national security, between gun rights and gun violence, between free speech and hate speech. All seem set to boil.
Into this mix has stepped Sessions, pledging loyalty to the rule of law. He need not — must not — carry this burden alone. It’s up to leaders, activists and everyday citizens to force the issue at the state, city and neighborhood level, as well. Americans who seek a healthy balance among civil rights and liberties, security and order, and respect for the law must make it their work to both speak up for these values.