Attorney General Jeff Sessions was grilled Tuesday, Nov. 14 by the House Judiciary Committee regarding the Russians’ role in interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But some the toughest questions weren’t exactly about WikiLeaks, Donald Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin.
They were about Sessions’ history of alleged racism and the current administration’s lack of diversity, specifically the lack of black staff and nominees.
When Sessions suggested that the Department of Justice does focus on diversity and inclusion, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, appeared bemused.
“How is it that the Justice Department is fostering diversity when 91 percent of its judicial nominees have been white men?” Richmond asked Sessions during a question-and-answer portion of the attorney general’s Nov. 14 hearing before the House committee on Capitol Hill.
“I’m not aware of the numbers,” Sessions retorted.
“You should look for quality candidates, and diversity is a matter that has significance,” he said.
Undaunted, Richmond then replied by asking Sessions just how many African-Americans were on his senior staff.
“I don’t have a senior staff member at this time that’s an African-American,” Sessions said.
But Richmond wasn’t finished. He then asked Sessions about the number of U.S. attorneys who have been nominated or confirmed and how many were black.
“Just one, in Alabama, and he has been confirmed,” Sessions said.
The attorney general has been accused of being racist and CNN reported that an earlier Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony during hearings in March and May 1986 that Sessions had made racist remarks and called the NAACP and the ACLU “un-American.”
Sessions this week is testifying about Trump’s campaign ties to Russia. The attorney general insisted to lawmakers that he didn’t mislead Congress in earlier appearances about the president’s contacts with Russian officials.
He was asked about the latest developments in the ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the election in which Trump surprisingly defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Lawmakers asked about a Trump campaign adviser’s guilty plea to misleading investigators.
They focused on then-campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos’ attempts to coordinate a meeting between Trump and Putin and his presence at a March 2016 meeting also attended by Sessions.
But for Richmond and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the hearing presented a rare opportunity to call a Trump appointee on the carpet for their views and their brutal record with African-Americans and other minorities.
“For a lot of people who objectively look from the back like I do and many people where I live, the question is whether we are going towards inclusion and diversity or going back,” Richmond said.
Earlier this year, Richmond opposed Session’s appointment to the attorney general’s office, citing his history of bias.
Allegations of racially insensitive comments had previously cost Sessions as seat as a federal judge in 1986.
He also drew questions about his knowledge of a 12-page FBI report about “black extremists” groups that was written in August by the federal law enforcement agency and made its way around the internet.
The FBI’s report claimed that black extremists groups have increasingly targeted law enforcement, specifically after the police killings of African-Americans such as Michael Brown, who was shot to death in 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“If the attorney general can’t name one organization that’s a ‘black identify extremist’ group, we’re faced with one reality — the FBI and the Department of Justice are reverting back to a time when citizens were surveilled based on the color of their skin and their level of activism exercising their First Amendment Right,” said California Democratic Rep. Karen Bass.
Bass also confronted Sessions on the FBI report, expressing concerns over what she said were unfair labeling of protesters.
“Do you believe there is a movement of African-Americans that identify themselves as black identity extremists, and what does that movement do?” She asked Sessions.
The attorney general claimed he hadn’t seen the FBI report.
“I’m aware that there are groups that do have an extraordinary commitment to their racial identity, and some have transformed themselves even into violent activists,” Session said.
Bass later questioned Sessions on whether there were similar reports on neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, to which he said he wasn’t aware if the FBI had set out to perform similar reports or gather such intelligence on those groups.
Sessions also refused to answer whether he classified Black Lives Matter as an extremist group.
However, ABC News pointed out that in 2015 during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sessions said he believed “community-based policing is a great thing,” but “it is clear that police officers all over America are concerned” about legal actions taken against police officers and police departments by the Justice Department under then-President Barack Obama.
“I do think it’s a real problem when we have Black Lives Matter making statements that are really radical, that are absolutely false,” Sessions said at the time.
According to Sessions, officials within the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division failed to criticize statements made by Black Lives Matter such as “pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.”
“I asked Jeff Sessions to name one black identity extremist group,” Bass said after the hearing. “He couldn’t. I asked him to name one white supremacist group that had targeted cops. His memory failed until I reminded him. It’s ridiculous.”