Of all Donald Trump's rogues-gallery Cabinet appointments – the plainly incompetent Housing and Urban Development secretary, Ben Carson; the avarice-personified Labor nominee, Andrew Puzder; the loathsome Tom Price, who will use his perch atop the Department of Health and Human Services to help dismantle the Affordable Care Act; the positively clueless Education secretary, Betsy DeVos – the one who offends me most is the new attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, formerly a senator from Alabama.
It's not just the allegations of racism that have dogged Sessions for the better part of three decades, although they are worth discussing, and in a saner administration they alone would have been disqualifying. Take the time in the 1980s when Sessions, then the U.S. attorney in Mobile, "joked" to colleagues working a brutal hate crime that he thought the KKK was "OK until I found out they smoked pot." An African-American assistant U.S. attorney general later testified that Sessions repeatedly called him "boy," and another federal prosecutor testified that Sessions had called the NAACP "un-American" and said it and the ACLU had "forced civil rights down the throats of people."
Other attorneys with whom Sessions worked defended him, including some African-Americans, but in 1986, the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee declined to elevate him to the federal bench.
As part of those hearings, Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, wrote an impassioned letter urging senators to reject Sessions. "Mr. Sessions," she wrote, "has used the awesome power of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship." King was referencing a 1984 investigation into alleged absentee voting fraud, in which, she wrote, Sessions targeted only voters "in the Black Belt counties where blacks had finally achieved political power in the local government. Whites had been using the absentee process to their advantage for years, without incident. Then, when Blacks, realizing its strength, began to use it with success, criminal investigations were begun."
She continued: "Mr. Sessions' conduct as U.S. Attorney, from his politically motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicates that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge. ... The irony of Mr. Sessions' nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods."
(It was Elizabeth Warren quoting from this letter last week that moved Republican senators – including Florida's Marco Rubio, who then had the gall to lecture us about civility, complaining that "we are becoming a society incapable of having debate anymore" – to silence the senator from Massachusetts.)
What makes King's three-decades-ago letter so relevant isn't just Sessions' alleged animus toward people of color and other marginalized individuals. His career in the U.S. Senate attests to that, from the key role he's played in derailing immigration reform to his fearmongering over criminal justice reform and marijuana decriminalization to the water he's carried for the private prison industry. Hell, on Friday, his second day leading the Justice Department, he signaled that the Trump administration would reverse the Obama administration's decision to include transgender individuals under Title IX anti-discrimination protections.
No, what's so chilling in King's letter is her account of Sessions' alleged willingness to use the powers of his office to make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote. Because now, Sessions will control the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. And just as important, the Trump administration has signaled that a voting-rights crackdown is coming, and it's quite likely that Sessions' Department of Justice will be the tip of the spear.
On Sunday morning President Trump's senior adviser, 31-year-old Stephen Miller, the ideologue and true Trump-believer behind the Muslim ban, went on ABC's This Week and propagated – sans evidence, because there isn't any – the president's absurd falsehood that he'd narrowly lost New Hampshire because Democrats had bused in thousands of fake voters from neighboring Massachusetts.
Then came the tell: "But I can tell you this," Miller said, "voter fraud is a serious problem in this country. ... And now we have – our government is beginning to get [set] up. But we have a Department of Justice and we have more officials. An issue of voter fraud is something we're going to be looking at very seriously and very hard."
A few facts – real facts, not of the alternative variety – worth mentioning: First, widespread voter fraud, the kind where droves (tens of thousands, not isolated cases here and there) of voters intentionally illegally vote so as to influence the outcome of an election, is a myth. It doesn't happen, and there's no evidence to suggest it does. Second, the data often thrown around to support these claims – that there are millions of registered voters who are either registered in two states or dead – is not evidence of voter fraud, but rather of outdated registration systems.
But ever since he took office – actually, before that, ever since Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million – this is what the president would have you believe: that voter rolls are overrun with illegal voters, that the system is rife with corruption and needs to constrained, that it's too easy to vote, too easy for the wrong kind of people to vote.
And in Sessions, Trump has just the man to lead the crackdown he so plainly desires.