Watch Al Franken excoriate Jeff Sessions, Republicans for attempting "to recast him as a civil rights champion"

The Minnesota Dem also slammed Ted Cruz for "trying to impugn" his record during a battle of wits

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published February 1, 2017 10:01PM (EST)

Minnesota Senator Al Franken
Minnesota Senator Al Franken

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions on Wednesday cleared the first hurdle on his way to confirmation as attorney general (securing the approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee), but not before he was called out by a colleague for misleadingly "trumpeting" his record on civil rights.

Senate Democrats have repeatedly expressed concern this week that several of President Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees have submitted misleading testimony to relevant committees. On Tuesday, Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee boycotted the hearings of Tom Price, Trump's pick to head the Health and Human Services Department, and Treasury Department nominee Steve Mnuchin, over allegations that both provided "inaccurate" testimony about their knowledge of improper and illegal activity in previous business dealings.

Sen. Sessions has come under similar scrutiny over his belatedly delivered nomination questionnaire.

"I noticed some discrepancies in the way he had described his involvement in civil rights cases filed during his time as a U.S. attorney," Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken said of Sessions at Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. In the 1980s Sessions failed to receive confirmation as a federal judge — from a Republican-led Senate.

Franken has already announced that he will vote against Sessions and last month told the senator that he thought he exaggerated his leadership and involvement in 1980s era civil rights cases in a nomination questionnaire.

"I asked him about his claim that he has filed 20 or 30 desegregation cases, a claim he made in a 2009 interview with the National Review," Franken recalled. "In response, Sen. Sessions said, 'The records do not show that there were 20 or 30 actually filed cases,'" Franken added. "I then went on to question him about four questions that he listed on his questionnaire which ask him to list 'the 10 most significant litigated matters he personally handled. Among those cases listed on his questionnaire were three voting rights cases and a desegregation case.

"Now that surprised me," Franken continued. "That's because I know Sen. Sessions and I know Sen. Sessions is no champion of voting rights."

Franken pointed out that Sessions has "called the Voting Rights Act 'intrusive' and complained about states with a history of discrimination being subject to preclearance, but here he seemed to be trumpeting his personal involvement in three voting rights cases and one school desegregation cases."

With a tone of incredulity, Franken dug in. "It just seemed to me that given his previous experience before this committee, and given the concern that civil rights advocates have expressed about his nomination, that perhaps Sen. Sessions or the transition team was attempting to revise that history and recast him as a civil rights champion."

After excoriating the myth of Sessions as a conservative crusader for civil rights, Franken turned his attention to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz has previously criticized Franken's questioning of Sessions as rude and accused Franken of using the incident to “undermine [Sessions'] character and integrity.”

“It is unfortunate to see members of this body impugn a fellow senator with whom we have served for years,” Cruz recently said of Franken. “It is particularly unfortunately when the attack is not backed up by the facts.”

But Franken argued on Wednesday that it was Cruz who had misrepresented the facts by incorrectly stating that testimony provided in 1986, which accused Sessions of making racially insensitive remarks, had been recanted.

Before Franken could finish correcting the record, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn objected and said he didn't think it was fair that Franken would take issue with a senator not in attendance.

"Well he should be here, first of all," Franken said. "And secondly he disparaged me, senator."

Franken kept on his attack.

“Mr. Chairman, I object again. The senator apparently get the message from the chairman that this is … ,” Cornyn cut in — only to have Franken interrupt again.

“Sen. Cruz did the very thing that Sen. Cornyn is accusing me of doing,” Franken said. “He misrepresented me, he misrepresented Mr. Hebert, he personally went after me, he personally impugned my integrity. You didn’t object then did you?”

Chuck Grassley, chairman of  Judiciary Committee, then told Franken to continue his speech: "You've put the chairman at an awful bad position at this point. . . . Could you please leave personalities out of it?"

Franken continued, only to be interrupted with another objection from Cornyn, who said, “It would be a decent and honorable thing to do it in the senator’s presence.”

"Well get him here, but he'll have a tape of it" Franken said. “I think the senator from Texas doesn’t get the message from the chairman.”

Added Franken: “When describing this history, Sen. Cruz misrepresented what happened.” He said, “So I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.”

Watch below:

Republicans on the committee, however, went on to approve Sessions' nomination, 11 to 9, voting along party lines. All of the panel's Democrats voted against Sessions.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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