What Was Rand Paul Thinking in Voting for Jeff Sessions? That the A.G. Agrees With President Trump (Updated)
Senator and staff explain the puzzle of opposing Loretta Lynch, supporting Jeff Sessions, and threatening to filibuster Elliott Abrams
For the past 20+ hours, ever since the majority-wielding Senate GOP voted unanimously to confirm Jeff Sessions as the new attorney general, libertarian Twitter has lit up with versions of the following question:
.@RandPaul So how does a drug war and mass incarceration critic vote for the Senate's most strident supporter of both … *to run the DOJ.*
— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) February 9, 2017
The exasperation is understandable given Sessions' nearly universal bad rep among libertarians—not just here at Reason, but in Randphilic sites like Rare, where you can find such headlines as "Jeff Sessions is a terrible choice for attorney general." So how does Paul explain the apparent discrepancy between opposing President Barack Obama's nominee Loretta Lynch over concerns about civil asset forfeiture, and then voting for a guy who is equally wretched on the same issue?
In a Facebook post last night, the self-described "libertarianish" senator pointed to two differentiators: Sessions (unlike Lynch) is unequivocal on the illegality of droning American non-combatants, and also he "agrees with the president." Excerpt:
[I]n 2013, I took to the Senate floor for 13 hours to force then-Attorney General Eric Holder to answer a question on the extent of the president's "national security powers": "Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?"
Eric Holder answered clearly, "No."
It is of the utmost importance for the Attorney General to recognize there are fundamental limits to presidential power. When I contacted Jeff Sessions to ask him the same question, he affirmed that he held this same position.
One of the most important duties of a senator is providing advice and consent to the president's nominees.
We don't pick the nominees; we consent to their qualifications. As Senator Sessions agrees with the president, is of good character, and upheld the doctrine protecting American citizens, I voted to confirm him today.
Italics mine. So Paul's dealbreaker now appears to be drone strikes on American soil; other objectionable beliefs are subject to the test of whether they are at variance with the nominating president. Point being, if you block Sessions, would you get a similarly bad-on-many-issues Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie in his stead? With Lynch, according to Paul's chief strategist Doug Stafford, there was hope that her views on asset forfeiture and other areas of concern conflicted enough with those of the more reform-friendly Obama that her potential replacement could conceivably be better.
Paul reiterated his agreeing-with-the-president doctrine in an interview today on MSNBC's Morning Joe, in which he stated his intention to filibuster longtime Washington neoconservative Elliott Abrams should Trump nominate him to a senior leadership position at the State Department. "The main reason is, is that I don't think he agrees with the president on foreign policy," said Paul, echoing previous objections he's made to trial-balloon foreign-policy candidates Giuliani and John Bolton. "You know, the president even this morning was saying that he disagrees with getting bogged down in foreign war and with nation-building. That's exactly the foreign policy of Elliott Abrams, chief architect of the Iraq War, also a big fan of nation-building."
Paul's early Trump play seems clear: Try to convince the president that he has an anti-interventionism mandate, and insert himself into the process when the executive branch gets (even more) go-it-alone uppity on military adventurism. For instance, at the tail end of the Morning Joe interview, Paul briefly questioned the constitutionality of U.S. bombing of Yemen, a subject on which he and a bipartisan group of senators is demanding to be briefed.
That said, Paul is also obviously trying to speak Trump's language along the way, leading to such cringe-worthies as him criticizing Abrams on grounds that the potential nominee was "quite dismissive of the president throughout the campaign; it's sort of hard for me to imagine that a NeverTrumper would be in the State Department, particularly one that has been very, very vocal and really disrespectful in many ways to Donald Trump." At other points in the interview, Paul laughingly waved off multiple offers to weigh in on Trump's war of words with the judiciary, and couched any conflict between Trump and his Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch as reflecting badly on Democrats.
Speaking of Dems, this just in from Delaware Dave Weigel:
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) February 9, 2017
Listen to Nick Gillespie's recent interview with Rand Paul on the Reason Podcast here.
UPDATE: More from Weigel:
"In some ways, the Democrats made it much more certain that I would vote for him by trying to destroy his character," Paul said Thursday in an interview with The Washington Post and Roll Call for C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" series. "I think it's very upsetting that they didn't choose to go after him on particular issues, like civil asset forfeiture, where they might have been able to persuade someone. They chose to go after a man's character." […]
"The thing is, I've seen pictures of him marching for voting rights with [congressman] John Lewis," Paul said of Sessions. "He is for voting rights. There are things no one wants attached to their character, no person that I know wants to be called racist, or that you're trying to prevent someone to vote."