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Sen. Leahy On His Opposition To Sessions, And Trump's First Moves As President

Robert F. Bukaty
Sen. Patrick Leahy, shown here in Burlington on the evening of his 2016 reelection, says he thinks Sen. Jeff Sessions, President Trump's nominee for attorney general, is "outside the mainstream of his own party."

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote this week on the nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as the country's next attorney general. Sen. Patrick Leahy spoke to VPR about Sesssions' nomination and a number of policies proposed by President Trump during his first week in office.  

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. Listen to the full interview above.

On Leahy's opposition to Sessions

“I start out by giving the president's [nominees] every benefit of the doubt. I went ... through hundreds, even thousands of pages of his speeches. I looked at his votes. I don't think that he has the independence or the philosophy of someone who should be attorney general for everybody.

“I'm not convinced he would enforce the laws that he opposed as a senator. He voted against the Violence Against Women Act. It was strengthened to include all women, including immigrants, added sexual trafficking of children. He voted against it. I don't know how anybody could possibly do that.

“We even had even had an amendment in the Judiciary Committee to say that religious freedom is a core principle of the United States. Most people voted for it — Republicans and Democrats. He voted against it.

“There are just too many areas where he's been outside the mainstream of his own party. I'm perfectly willing to see the president nominate a conservative Republican, provided it's somebody that we could be assured would protect all our rights, whether you are Republican or Democrat, men, women, no matter where you are.”

On Sessions’ support of President Trump’s immigration policies

“[Sessions] was one of the most ardent opponents of the immigration bill that got, I think, two-thirds of the of the Senate voting for it, Republicans or Democrats. He just fought against it, spoke against it. One example, he had one amendment gut it. He spoke for 45 minutes and he gave one vote: his.

“He has stayed so outside the mainstream on immigration matters, and now when we see the president saying well, 'We'll look at one country, we'll certainly like Christians but are not Muslims.' I worry about an attorney general who’s then going to enforce those laws.”

On Trump’s claim that halting refugee resettlement programs such as Rutland’s is a matter of national security

“He is wrong. I talked with Mayor [Christopher] Louras of Rutland about it. I know the distrust, and the families in Rutland who are working hard to welcome these Syrian refugees, and I cannot understand what President Trump has said. Any refugees coming in here, from especially from a number of countries in the Middle East has ... [has] to go through so many checks. It could take him years to go through all the vetting that they go through.

“Certainly, they go through a lot more vetting than some of the nominees that Donald Trump has sent up here. But you look at a 4-year-old child who nearly drowned in trying to flee. What kind of a threat is this?

“You want to talk about threats, look at 9/11. The people who did that came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They're not on the list.”

On steps Congress might take to overturn the president’s executive order on refugee resettlement

“The courts are knocking it down, because it's just, you know, he gave this order, he didn't even talk to people in [the Department of] Homeland Security or anybody who has to deal with that.

“He just did it, as obviously a political thing. And the courts slammed it down. Now we're getting demonstrations all over the world. ISIS is using his order as a way to recruit people, to say, ‘See, we told you, the United States was anti-Muslim, and he's proving it.’”

On the possibility that the Trump Administration would consider using torture

“Torture would be in direct violation [of federal law]. Everybody in our military, everybody in our intelligence will tell you it doesn't work, and all it does is give talking points for the other side.

“The president says, ‘Well they use torture, why can't we use torture?’ Because we're Americans. We're better than they are, and it does not work.”

On Trump’s executive order giving Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon a full seat on the National Security Council "principals committee"

“No president, Republican or Democratic, has ever taken a political adviser put him in there. I've sat in some of these national security meetings with both Republican and Democratic presidents; there's no politics talked in there. They're very intense.

“You have briefings that come in from the military, from intelligence people. You don't want a political adviser in there. I tell you one thing it’ll do: It will make some of our intelligence people who should be giving us the clearest information, they're going to be afraid to.”

On President Trump upholding his campaign promises to voters

“The president and takes an oath to uphold the laws of this country and protect the Constitution.

"Torture is not upholding the law ... During the campaign, he said, ‘We're going to go to build a wall and Mexico pay for it.’ Now he says, ‘We're going to build a wall and the U.S. taxpayers can pay for it. And somewhere, someday, we might get reimbursed.’ Well, somewhere, someday, Santa Claus may leave me a big present.

“These are not the things anyone should do. He said he’d surround himself with experts. Now he says, ‘No, I know more, and the experts? I don't need them to make these decisions.’ Well, look what happened today. We have our allies all over the world saying, ‘What in heaven's name is going on?’ You see worldwide markets being affected by this. And look at the demonstrations throughout this country.

“There’s a certain amount of hyperbole goes on in campaigns. I mean, he also said they’d release his tax returns once he got here. Well, he picks and chooses what he wants to do.”

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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