Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions faced a wide range of questions during today’s Senate hearing on his confirmation as attorney general, including a few that point to potential pressure points in Washington state and other parts of Cascadia.
We’ll focus on three of them here: marijuana, immigration issues and cybersecurity issues.
Sessions has long been critical of states’ efforts to legalize medical and recreation use of marijuana, as is the case for Washington, Oregon and now Cailfornia (along with several other states). But as a conservative, he’s also a big believer in states’ rights. Here’s how he came down on the issue when asked about it today:
“One obvious concern is that Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state an illegal act. If that is not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change it. It’s not the attorney general’s job to decide which laws to enforce. We should enforce the laws as effectively as we are able.”
That last phrase, about the ability to enforce, could be key. One of the Obama administration’s arguments has been that it’s not worth devoting federal resources to arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana as long as the states have the issue under control.
Sessions’ soon-to-be boss, President-elect Donald Trump, has taken a softer stand on pot, and on Fox News, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer signaled that Sessions might be counseled to cool it.
“When you come into a Trump administration, it’s the Trump agenda that you are implementing, not your own,” Spicer said. “And I think that Sen. Sessions is well aware of that.”
This is a huge issue on the Trump administration’s agenda, and it’s been a big one for Sessions as well. More than 50 local jurisdictions in Oregon and Washington have limited the extent of their cooperation with federal immigration agencies when it comes to turning in undocumented immigrants, even if they’re facing criminal charges.
Today Sessions pointed to sanctuary-city policies as an indication that the system is “failing in a whole lot of ways,” and said “I think we can do better.”
Although he opposed instituting a registry for Muslims in the U.S., Sessions hinted that religion could play an indirect role in whether visitors are allowed into the country. “I believe that religion as practiced by and understood by an individual could make that individual subject to being denied admission, if that individual’s practice of their religion would present a threat to the country,” he said.
Another immigration issue has to do with types of visas that are typically issued to high-tech workers. Although the issue of H-1B visas didn’t come up during the hearing, Sessions has been sharply critical of the visa program as applied at Microsoft and other companies.
“Perhaps these companies, instead of lobbying for H-1B workers, should hire some of the thousands of tech workers who are being laid off?” Sessions said in 2015.
This particular issue may be another area in which Trump’s views will trump Sessions’ historical opposition. The president-elect was reportedly sympathetic when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella discussed H-1B visas during last month’s tech summit at Trump Tower.
Computer privacy vs. security
Sessions toed a careful line as he was asked repeatedly about allegations of campaign interference by Russian hackers. He said that he was sure the FBI’s conclusions about Russia’s involvement were “honorably reached,” and that there should be “protocols to ensure a price is paid” when other countries interfere with America’s democratic process.
Sessions pledged to uphold the Freedom of Information Act as well as USA Freedom Act, which ended the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records. But with regard to cybersecurity measures, including those raised by encryption, Sessions promised Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that he would “put the safety and security of the American people first.”
For more comments from Sessions on cyber issues, plus commentary from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, check out EFF’s live blog of the hearing.
Extra points from the hearing
- Sessions said he would recuse himself from any questions involving follow-up investigations of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic foe in the presidential campaign, “because we can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute.” When asked about campaign chants to “lock her up,” Sessions said he believed the chants were “sometimes humorously done.”
- Trump has suggested that he would bring back harsh interrogation techniques when it comes to questioning suspected terrorists – including waterboarding, which is considered a form of torture. But Sessions said current law clearly states waterboarding is “absolutely improper and illegal.”
- Referring to allegations that helped sink his nomination to a federal judgeship in 1986, Sessions said that he abhorred the Ku Klux Klan “and its hateful ideology,” and denied claims that he called the NAACP un-American.
- Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., referred indirectly to an outrageous comment made by Trump that was recorded in 2005 and came to light during the campaign. “Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?” Leahy asked Sessions. “Clearly it would be,” Sessions replied. In October, Sessions gave a less clear-cut answer (although the issue of consent wasn’t included in the question back then).