Leading up to inauguration, there has been a disturbing trend in President-elect Donald Trump’s picks to lead government agencies. This seems to be his approach: find a person who is openly hostile to the work the agency is designed to do, and then put him or her in charge of it.
It’s a trend that has perhaps been most apparent in Trump’s nomination of a civil rights opponent, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, to lead the U.S. Department of Justice. Although there’s no end to the list of reasons why Sessions is the wrong choice for U.S. attorney general, as a lifelong women’s rights advocate, I am especially concerned about the harm Sessions could do to women if he were confirmed by the Senate for this position. Unfortunately, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who has expressed her support for Sessions’ nomination and is slated to introduce him at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, doesn’t seem to share this concern.
But there are many reasons to be alarmed. As attorney general, Sessions would oversee the Office on Violence Against Women, which is tasked with offering federal leadership in addressing violence against women and sexual assault. Given Sessions’ record, it’s hard to imagine a worse candidate to lead that effort. He voted in 2012 against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. After the release last October of the tape of Trump bragging about nonconsensual sexual contact with women, Sessions made clear that he either does not understand what constitutes sexual assault or that he’s willing to brush it aside when it’s politically convenient. “I don’t characterize that as sexual assault,” he said. “I think that’s a stretch.” Sessions insisted that “this thing is overblown” because “everybody knows that Trump likes women.”
This is coming from the man who would be heading federal efforts to fight sexual violence. Collins has held hearings on addressing sexual assault and co-sponsored the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Collins cannot truly believe that, if confirmed as attorney general, Sessions will enforce the laws that she has supported but that he does not appear to support nor understand.
Beyond issues of violence against women, Sessions’ hostility to civil rights across the board calls into question his ability to lead the Department of Justice’s work on any number of issues affecting women’s lives. From protecting voting rights for women of color, to fighting discrimination against immigrant women, to responding to hate crimes against transgender women, to enforcing laws prohibiting sex-based discrimination in education, the Department of Justice carries out a wide range of tasks central to the health, safety and rights of women across the country. But Sessions’ record on these issues demonstrates that he is the wrong choice to direct this work. For example, will someone who voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—legislation to help fight the gender pay gap—be willing and able to provide effective leadership on addressing sex-based pay discrimination?
The Department of Justice also helps protect women’s ability to safely access reproductive health clinics and helps investigate and prosecute harassment and violence against clinics, which has been on the rise—like the horrific shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs that left three people dead and nine injured in November 2015. But Sessions has a long history of adamantly opposing abortion rights, and he has even voted against a proposal that would have helped protect the safety of clinic staff.
The attorney general is meant to be the people’s lawyer, and that means all of the people. But I fear that in this role, Sessions could do immeasurable harm to women. His record has given us no reason to believe otherwise, and we are counting on senators to stand up for women when they consider Sessions’ nomination.
Collins, who has been an advocate for women’s rights, is going out of her way to throw her support behind Sessions despite his alarming record on issues affecting women — and that demands an explanation. Our elected officials must do better than this. Senators should demand an attorney general nominee who can be trusted to protect the fundamental rights of everyone in our country.
Kathleen Turner is an advocate and Academy Award-nominated actress. She serves on the board of People For the American Way’s affiliate, PFAW Foundation.