Jeff Sessions' High-Wire Act

In his nomination hearings, he tried to balance the law and his fealty to Donald Trump.

More nuance.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Back in October, when the release of a recording of Donald Trump boasting of groping women rocked the presidential campaign, Senator Jeff Sessions minimized the severity of his candidate's comments: “I don’t characterize that as sexual assault. I think that’s a stretch.” He advised the Republican leadership to “take a deep breath.”

Although he almost immediately softened those comments, he tried to put the matter to rest this way: "This thing is overblown. Everybody knows that Trump likes women," Sessions said. "This is not a disqualifying event."

Trump didn’t pay much of a price for the scandal of the "Access Hollywood" tapes, but Sessions may not get off so easy. On Tuesday, at his confirmation hearings to be attorney general, the senator was the one breathing heavily. “Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?" Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, asked. "Clearly, it would be," Sessions replied.

Clearly, like frankly, is a gratuitous modifier that most often suggests that what follows is anything but. Session was Trump’s first and, for a long time, only supporter in the Senate, a stiff Methodist who was nonetheless comfortable with a candidate carrying significant baggage. 

Standing by his man paid off for Sessions. Now, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee needed assurance that as the land's chief law enforcement officer he would enforce the law of the land, a task that would force him to take a hard line against the kinds of behavior Trump once bragged about. 

When Sessions proffered that Trump loved women, he was partly right, but only individually: Melania, his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway who dragged him across the finish line and especially his daughter Ivanka. But as a group, they’re on their own. He has vowed to appoint a Supreme Court judge who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. During the campaign, he said he wanted to punish any woman who got an abortion. His daughter is in favor of paid maternity leave, but he has yet to take it up. He chose as his vice president a governor who fought for the right of bakers in Indiana to refuse to put a groom and groom on top of a cake. His appointments to all the top spots are male.  

And then there is Trump’s treatment of women outside his immediate circle which, if his own words are to be believed, is abysmal. Looking at President Barack Obama as he praised his wife and daughters in his farewell address was to see a role model for every boy in America.

OK, Trump won the majority of white women in the election. Nonetheless, the women’s war on Republicans is about to heat up again with a march on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration.

Sessions set out to give needed assurance to the Judiciary Committee that he didn’t mean to countenance Trump back in October.  

With the dispensation that all Trump’s nominees have to say whatever gets them through their hearings, Sessions reversed his earlier rubber-stamp of the boss’s behavior. Asked whether he would prosecute a sitting president accused of the behavior described in the tapes, Sessions said, "The president is subject to certain lawful restrictions and they would be required to be applied by the appropriate law enforcement official if appropriate, yes."

That’s one too many “appropriates,” but it satisfied most of his colleagues, who’d drawn a warm bath for him. But women shouldn’t buy it. In many ways, Sessions may be the most troublesome of Trump’s nominees when it comes to domestic issues, and not only because he was once deemed too racist to be a federal judge. Well before sidling up to Trump, he had a poor record on protecting women that made it all too easy for him to brush off Trump’s boasting about conduct that would land many men in jail.

Sessions did not support an expansion of the federal hate crimes law to include sexual orientation and gender identity. He voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, which was labeled by his party as a feminist attack on family values for its extension of protection to lesbians and gays. He changed his view at this week's hearing so that VAWA now enjoys his “broad” support, whatever broad means. He’s against abortion rights, voting for restrictions every chance he got, but told the committee he would carry out current law, that is, until his boss appoints a Supreme Court justice to change it.  

He voted against a bill to alter the handling of military sexual assaults. He surprised women senators when he arrived at an Armed Services Committee hearing on proposed legislation and changed the subject to the possible connection between the epidemic of sexual assaults and the ready availability of pornography on military bases.

Another Trump wingman, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, had to twist himself into the candidate's world view, but couldn’t see his way to defend him after the tapes. He’s back in Trenton now. Sessions arrived pre-shrunk. Like Trump, he believes those in power know best, even if it means not stretching to see that what the boss admitted to  is the very definition of sexual assault. The rest of the males around Trump seem cut from the same bespoke suit.

Most of all, being in the room where the fawning takes place, Sessions knows that if you don’t bow down to the boss, you will no longer be working for the boss and that means either enjoying, or letting pass, locker room banter, as Trump described his assertions on the tapes. Listen closely for “clearly” and “appropriate.” It’s likely Sessions will be reversing himself again soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.