A career-defining test for Jeff Sessions

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is saying all the right things about the federal civil rights investigation into the white supremacist march in Charlottesville last weekend that descended into mayhem and murder.

Making his rounds on the morning talk shows, Sessions said, “Justice will be done. We’re coming after these people. It cannot be tolerated in America.” He later added, “You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation towards the most serious charges that can be brought, because this is an unequivocally unacceptable and evil attack that cannot be accepted in America.”

Specifically, the Justice Department will seek federal charges against white supremacist James A. Fields Jr., who is accused of ramming his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. Officials also want to know if others were involved. Fields has already been charged with second-degree murder in Virginia.


“There’s no bigger case right now that we’re working on,” Sessions said. “Every resource that’s needed will be dedicated to it.”

Yet there is reasonable concern that the DOJ investigation might not be as rigorous as promised, and public doubt begins with the attorney general himself. For decades, Sessions, a former Alabama senator, has been dogged by allegations of racism that surfaced again during his contentious Senate confirmation hearings earlier this year.

Those accusations date back to 1986 when Sessions, then US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, was under consideration to be a federal judge. African-American lawyers who worked for Sessions testified that he made racially insensitive remarks. Coretta Scott King sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that accused Sessions of “indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws.” Ultimately, Sessions was denied that judgeship.

Now the same attorney general challenging affirmative action at colleges and universities and questioning police consent decrees is charged with investigating a racist murder in Charlottesville.


This is a crucial moment for Sessions. If his DOJ conducts a thorough examination and brings federal charges against Fields, Sessions could separate himself from President Trump, whose false equivalencies and defense of white supremacists are roiling his administration. Yet should Sessions, who’s been in Trump’s doghouse since recusing himself from the ongoing inquiry into Russian collusion, conduct a lackluster investigation that comes up empty, he could be viewed as kowtowing to his boss — confirming what many already believe about his dubious history on civil rights.

In the opening statement of his confirmation hearing, Sessions tried to address the racism charges. “I abhor the Klan and its hateful ideology,” he said. With the world watching how his DOJ handles the Charlottesville investigation, Sessions now has what could be a career-defining opportunity to prove it.