On Tuesday night, Democrats in the Senate took the floor to speak out against the nomination of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. Earlier in the day, the Senate voted 52-47 to limit debate on Sessions and move towards the final confirmation vote. Sessions was later confirmed as Attorney General on Wednesday night. There are several concerns that Democratic Senators, and many members of the public, have with the appointment of Sessions. As Attorney General, Sessions would need to be an impartial enforcer of the nation’s laws, which may require him to stand up to President Donald Trump if his actions overstep the boundaries of his executive power. Many fear that Sessions would not stand up to Trump, which would him to get away with potentially illegal and criminal acts. Prior to his nomination, Sessions refused to acknowledge that grabbing women by their genitalia without permission is sexual assault after a recording of Trump claiming to do that very thing was released by the Washington Post. There are also concerns about Sessions’ record on race. In 1986, Sessions failed to be confirmed for a federal judgeship by a Republican-controlled Senate because of racist remarks he had made – remarks that he continues to defend.
While speaking against the confirmation of Sessions on this matter, Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA-D) was cut off by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY-R). Warren was in the middle of reading a letter submitted to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary by Coretta Scott King in 1986. The letter, which was submitted as testimony when Sessions was being considered for a federal judgeship, describes how Sessions repressed Black voters from fully participating in the electoral process and demonstrated a negative bias towards Black defendants during his time as Attorney General of Alabama. McConnell drew on the rarely-used ‘Rule 19’ of the Standing Rules of the Senate, which states that no Senator can “impute to another Senator or Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or becoming of a Senator.” Citing this rule, the Republicans successfully prevented Warren from finishing the letter or speaking on the floor during the rest of the debate. Undeterred, Warren finished reading the letter outside the doors of the chamber while broadcasting the speech on various social media platforms.
While technically allowed by the Senate code, McConnell’s refusal to let Warren voice her opinion on Sessions is extremely concerning. It is the most recent example of the new administration’s determination to suppress any dissent towards its agenda. Since taking office, Trump has shown numerous times that he will not tolerate anyone who speaks out against him, his cabinet members or their executive actions. Last week, after a federal judge kept Trump’s immigration ban from being enforced, Trump responded by calling him a ‘so-called judge’ and promising to ‘overturn’ his decision. This statement not only demonstrates a complete disregard for the balance of powers established in our Constitution, but also betrays Trump’s concern with any public expression of dissent. He has consistently claimed the media is unfairly biased against him when they publish pieces that frame him in a negative way, and has argued that CNN and The New York Times are not legitimate news sources. While some Republican Senators, such as Senator John McCain (AZ-R), have stood up to Trump, most have fallen in line behind the President, unwilling to question his actions or motives.
The lack of tolerance the administration has displayed for dissenting viewpoints ought to be concerning regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum. Forbidding Senator Warren to voice her opinion on Sessions is the most recent example of this behavior. It is worth noting that there was little question that Sessions would be confirmed as Attorney General. Therefore, what would motivate McConnell to forbid Warren from speaking – a move many people could have predicted to backfire? Keeping with the concerns of the new administration, McConnell was likely more worried about the public’s reaction to King’s letter than that of members of the Senate. Ironically, though not unexpectedly, the public has heard much more about King’s letter precisely because Warren was not allowed to read it on the Senate floor. In about 12 hours, Warren received over $250,000 in donations for her re-election campaign from members of MoveOn.
When powerful figures in Washington try to interfere with our ability to speak up and stifle our access to information, we must fight back. Use your voice – amplified by social media – to express your opposition to specific actions and policies enacted by Trump or the Republican-held Congress. Follow journalists and politicians that will continue to speak out about what is happening in Washington, regardless of how Trump’s administration may attempt to stop them. Vocal opposition can be a force for change – especially when used collectively. Senator Warren’s refusal to be silenced is an example we all should follow.