Maybe Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was just really excited about being sworn in Thursday as the new US Attorney General, but his raised hand looked a lot like a “Sieg Heil” salute. Ordinarily, such perceptions would be immediately dismissed with a quick headshake and a little shame at having even given it a thought. But the moves by Donald Trump toward authoritarianism, with loyal buddy Jeff Sessions expected to back him up, makes the swearing in all the more cringe-worthy.
Brown-nosing by Senate Republicans terrified of a critical Trump tweet also lent credence to a future of anti-everything shock and awe. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed delighted to pull out the obscure Rule 19 to tell popular progressive Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren to sit down and shut up as Warren read a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King opposing Sessions’ civil rights record when he sought a federal judgeship.
“She was warned,” said McConnell of Warren. “She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
And with that, progressive women found a new meme.
There’s no shortage of legal and ethical issues and business conflicts of interest that Session may have to defend while also enforcing Trump’s screeching cacophony of executive orders and selling Trump products from the White House. In the three weeks since Trump’s inauguration, he has challenged the legitimacy of the constitutional rights of freedom of religion (Muslim ban), freedom of the press (“dishonest media”), independency of the judiciary (the third branch of government), as well as taking on the solid Republican notion of a free market economy through tweets praising or trying to intimidate specific businesses. And, since, the public still hasn’t seen Trump’s taxes, American citizens have no real understanding of how the Trump empire is intertwined with—and possibly benefiting from—his position in the Oval Office.
Where are the checks and balances? Where’s the accountability? And to whom will Trump loyalist Jeff Sessions salute – his politically inexperienced and authoritarian-inclined boss or the American people?
“It’s deeply disturbing that Jeff Sessions, who has demonstrated a clear animus against so many Americans — including the LGBTQ community, women and people of color — could be charged with running the very system of justice designed to protect them,” said Chad Griffin, President of the Human Rights Campaign, in a press release. “The man now in charge of enforcing hate crimes protections doesn’t even think they should exist — or that LGBTQ people need them. The man now in charge of enforcing civil rights laws is a man who has a history of undermining the rights of African-American voters. Our message to Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions is this: we’re going to fight any attempt to roll back our rights with every resource that we have. We will not give one inch.” (Read HRC’s report: Jeff Sessions: A History of Anti-LGBTQ Actions)
Interestingly, it appears that Sessions is likely to hire his old Alabama pal, Charles “Chuck” Cooper as US Solicitor General. Cooper, as anyone following the machinations of the landmark anti-marriage equality Prop 8 case remembers, was the attorney for the pro-Prop 8 ProtectMarriage.com. With this, Cooper and Sessions would seem to be simpatico. Sessions repeatedly co-sponsored and voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment, saying he wanted to pass an amendment to the United States Constitution outlawing marriage equality in every state. Of the 2015 Obergefell ruling, Sessions said it “goes beyond what I consider to be the realm of reality.”
Ah, but reality is a funny thing. Not only did Cooper lose his Prop 8 battle in federal district court and then, years later, at the Supreme Court—but he changed his own mind about marriage equality after his stepdaughter Ashley Lininger came out and announced her engagement to fiancé, Casey Cole. Cooper stepped up, saying he wanted to participate in their Massachusetts June wedding.
The disclosure came as a shock at the end of New York Times investigative reporter Jo Becker’s important book on Prop 8, Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality. “My views evolve on issues of this kind the same way as other people’s do, and how I view this down the road may not be the way I view it now, or how I viewed it ten years ago,” Cooper told Becker, a view with which former Vice President Dick Cheney concurred, even as President George W. Bush publicly pushed the federal marriage amendment.
“My daughter Ashley’s path in life has led her to happiness with a lovely young woman named Casey, and our family and Casey’s family are looking forward to celebrating their marriage in just a few weeks,” Cooper told the Associated Press.
“We were so moved to hear of the Cooper family’s constant love and support of their own daughter, even as the Perry case was in full swing and Mr. Cooper was spending his days planning Prop 8’s defense,’ Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, defendants in the Perry Prop 8 case told AP. “Some may find this contrast between public and private jarring, but in our opinion, loving an LGBT child unequivocally is the single most important thing any parent can do. We are overjoyed for Ashley and her fiancée, and we wish them the very best.”
But Cooper also has a deeper history that needs more examination. For instance, as the head of the Office of Legal Counsel in 1986, the possible next US Solicitor General signed an official OLC opinion arguing that employers could refuse to hire people with AIDS seeking a job if the employer worried about contracting HIV. A lot has changed since 1986, including non-discrimination laws prohibiting discrimination based on HIV/AIDS. But, with Trump constantly pumping up reasons to fear everything, the intensifying of HIV criminalization and with the potential broadening of “religious liberty” arguments to include refusing employment to someone deemed “sinful” by the employer—the attitude behind the 1986 opinion should be explained and scotched before it does damage.
And speaking of “religious liberties,” Cooper signed a brief on behalf of Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department supporting ultra-fundamentalist Bob Jones University in its challenge to an Internal Revenue Service policy denying tax exemptions to religious institutions that discriminate based on race. In Bob Jones University v. United States, the Greenville, South Carolina-based university said their sincerely held religious beliefs required a ban on interracial dating. The IRS said that was clear racial discrimination and took away their tax-exempt status. The case went to the US Supreme Court, which upheld the IRS policy by 8-1.
“I trust I don’t have to point out all the echoes from this case that resound to this day, and now we might have one of the amici who sided with the Reagan DOJ as solicitor general,” wrote Charles P. Pierce in Esquire. “Nothing is ever settled if they [conservative think tanks] don’t want it to be, and that includes racial progress, as we are learning again to our dismay this week. If the people who celebrated gay marriage don’t up their defense, these guys will be coming for that, too. They still haven’t gotten over Loving v. Virginia, for god’s sake.”