Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s pick to run the Justice Department, tried to have it both ways during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, disavowing Trump’s call to prevent Muslims from entering the United States — while still leaving the door open just a crack to religious tests at the border. For those inclined to see the glass half full, it was heartening that the prospective attorney general has at least an idea of the impracticability of Trump’s ban. But the waffling needs to stop.
The Alabama senator, an early and ardent supporter of Trump’s candidacy, said he didn’t think Muslims should be banned per se, but that some people may have religious beliefs that are “inimical to the public safety of the United States” and could thus be barred.
It’s a hairsplitting distinction that seems to leave wiggle room to declare certain religious beliefs disqualifying. That’s certainly how the Muslim world, whose cooperation and friendship the United States desperately needs, will hear Sessions’ answer.
As a political matter, such wordplay might be what it takes for the incoming administration to walk back Trump’s campaign promise, which violates the core American commitment to religious tolerance. But Trump, Sessions, or secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson needs to reject the idea without any caveats or qualifications. It’s the necessary first step to salvage America’s international standing and start undoing the damage done when Trump made such an inflammatory promise in the first place.
Apart from his stumble over the Muslim ban, Sessions did allay some concerns about this nomination, and publicly broke with the president-elect in several encouraging ways. Unlike the president-elect, who muses fondly about bringing back torture, Sessions acknowledged that waterboarding is “absolutely improper and illegal.” He said he would recuse himself from any decisions related to the Clinton Foundation or Hillary Clinton. He accepted the intelligence community’s conclusions on Russian interference in the presidential election.
Sessions is certainly right-wing, as would be expected from any of Trump’s nominees, but he seems to have a sense of legal and ethical propriety that the president-elect lacks. At least on paper, he has the proper background for an attorney general.
Presidents deserve leeway in making cabinet appointments, but that deference can’t become a blank check. After initially planning to ram through as many as six nominees on Wednesday, Senate Republicans have appropriately slowed down the process to provide more time to vet nominees. Pressing Sessions for a more definitive rejection of any religious tests for immigrants and visitors to the United States would be a valuable use of the Senate’s power.