Last night the Senate confirmed President Donald Trump's nomination for Attorney General in a near-party-line vote of 52 to 47, with Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia joining Republicans to approve Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a longtime opponent of voting and civil rights who once referred to the NAACP as "un-American” and “Communist-inspired." Sessions will now command the Justice Department's 113,000 employees, and has vowed to implement Trump's ominously vague "law and order" agenda.

Civil rights groups and others fear Sessions will reverse the Justice Department's Obama-era efforts to hold local police departments accountable, particularly in cases of police brutality and racist profiling policies. Sessions, a career foe of immigration, has also opposed the Voting Rights Act, and Trump's repeated delusional allegations of "millions" of illegal voters may be used as justification for increased minority vote suppression in Republican-controlled states, something Sessions's Justice Department is highly unlikely to challenge.

"We opposed Senator Sessions’ nomination because of his regrettable record on civil rights and his association with extremist anti-immigrant organizations," the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a statement. "Now that he has been confirmed as our next attorney general, we hope he surprises us and his other critics by protecting the civil and human rights of all persons in our country. Given the xenophobic executive orders that have been coming out of the White House, we need a staunch defender of the Constitution at the Justice Department."

In 1986, Sessions was denied a federal judgeship after a former deputy, who is black, testified that Sessions had called him "boy" and warned him to be careful about what he said ''to white folks." Sessions also allegedly joked that he thought Ku Klux Klan members were “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.” Another Justice Department lawyer said that Sessions had described the NAACP and the ACLU as “un-American” and “Communist-inspired."

Sessions did not specifically deny the allegations, but insisted, "I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create. I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks." But his nomination never made it out of committee, with two Republicans joining Democrats to block him. The Washington Post reported that this was "only the second nominee in 50 years to be denied by the Senate for a federal judgeship."

Last night's vote was the culmination of extraordinary rancor in the Senate, with Republicans voting during a debate Tuesday night to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren after she started to read a letter that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Lurther King, wrote in 1986 to urge the Senate to reject Sessions's nomination. "Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters,” wrote King, who died in 2006.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, objected to Warren's comments, citing the Senate rule against “impugning the motives” of a fellow senator. (The rule prohibits any senator from "directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.") Warren countered that she was merely quoting the views of others, and pointed out that Sessions was not even a senator when the observations were made.

After a 49-43 vote along partisan lines, Warren was formally prohibited from participating in any further debate of the Sessions nomination. "Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech,” McConnell said. “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

"I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate,” Warren said after McConnell’s motion.

The rare move to silence Warren elicited widespread condemnation from Democrats, and drew considerable media attention to comments that might have otherwise passed relatively unnoticed. "What hit me the hardest was, it is about silence,” Warren told a group of civil rights leaders on Wednesday. “It’s about trying to shut people up. It’s about saying: ‘No, no, no. Just go ahead and vote.'"

"Last night my Republican colleagues can hardly summon a note of disapproval for an administration that insults a federal judge, tells the news media to shut up, offhandedly threatens a legislator’s career and seems to invent new dimensions of falsehood each and every day,” Senator Chuck Schumer said. “I hope that this anti-free-speech attitude is not traveling down Pennsylvania Avenue to our great chamber.”

"I think Leader McConnell owes Senator Warren an apology," Senator Bernie Sanders said during a floor speech on Wednesday. Sanders, along with several other Democratic Senators, read King's letter on the floor of the Senate in solidarity with Warren, and without censure.

"The idea that a letter, a statement made by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., a letter that she wrote, could not be presented and spoken about here on the floor of the Senate, is to me incomprehensible," Sanders said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. "I want the American people to make a decision whether or not we should be able to look at Senator Sessions' record and hear from one of the heroines of the Civil Rights Movement."

"The bottom line is, it was long overdue with her," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. "I mean, she is clearly running for the nomination in 2020."

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