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Democratic Sen. Cory Booker Reveals Why He Testified Against Sessions


Cory Booker, Democratic senator from New Jersey, also spoke at today's hearing. He testified against Sessions' nomination. It was the first time a sitting senator has testified against a fellow senator for a cabinet position. Senator Booker, welcome to the program.

CORY BOOKER: Thank you for having me on.

CORNISH: You know, at times over the past two days, it sounded like we're hearing about two completely different people - one who's committed to protecting civil rights and upholding the law and then one who, in your words, has demonstrated a hostility toward civil rights and justice for all and has worked to frustrate attempts to advance those ideals. What do you think accounts for these conflicting portraits of Jeff Sessions?

BOOKER: Well, first of all, he is a nice person. I've enjoyed a collegial relationship with him. He even sponsored a piece of legislation to award civil rights leaders from the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. What this is not - for me, it's not about politics. This is about just what the facts are.

Jeff has been openly hostile to things that the Justice Department is doing right now. They're making a tremendous difference in our country, in line with the cause of civil rights and voting rights. The Justice Department has been party to - after the Shelby decision - in getting rid of the pre-clearance aspect of the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department has been very active in trying to find cases like they have found in North Carolina where voting rules were finally crafted to disadvantage African-Americans. The Justice Department was party to that. He criticized that action.

The Justice Department, at the time, that there is - literally protests - thousands of people taking to the street about fairness and policing. And times that the head of the FBI is talking about the - existed in controversial - incontrovertible existence of racial bias in policing, Jeff Sessions has taken on the Justice Department - criticized them for finding pattern in practice in places like Ferguson and taking action.

CORNISH: Well, let me jump in here because I don't want you to end up testifying again, but...

BOOKER: No problem.

CORNISH: ...I do have a question. After this election - I mean, voters essentially elected Donald Trump and, by extension, his choices - right? - like with Jeff Sessions - maybe because they also wanted to rein in the Justice Department actions against police departments, right? They wanted a crackdown on immigration. Mike Pence at one point said, look, there's too much talk of institutional racism and institutional bias. What's your response to these voters who went for this president, but precisely because they want to rein in some of the actions that they see the Justice Department taking?

BOOKER: I think that - and I know a lot of folks who voted for Donald Trump. They did not want to put somebody in a position who literally, when he was attorney general, used his office to stop gay and lesbian people from having a meeting in a public place. This is somebody that has - that is out of line with even my Republican colleagues. Even the chairman of the Judiciary Committee has been working with me on criminal justice reform. Republican governors are bragging about the Heritage Foundation even endorses efforts in criminal justice reform.

And Jeff Sessions is a way outlier and somebody that's hostile to a lot of things that are now considered even in the mainstream for the Republican Party. I cannot remain silent with someone like this - that is a threat to the protections of the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the minority in this country. This guy is way out of the pale and a real threat to the advancements that are being made in civil rights - often Republicans, Democrats doing things on criminal justice together.

CORNISH: Now, he's said - he has definitely tried to defend himself against these kinds of accusations. He said, I understand demands for justice and fairness made by the LGBT community. And he said that he would ensure the statutes protecting their civil rights and their safety are fully enforced. He also said that he understood it would be his responsibility to challenge discriminatory state laws. He says, you cannot allow improper erosion of the right of Americans to vote. Why is this not enough for you?

BOOKER: Because we don't have to speculate on someone who's had such the long career that he has. We have seen what he's done as an attorney general. We've seen what he's done as U.S. attorney. We've seen what he's - what he's done as a senator. There are very limited resources in the Justice Department. They have to pick and choose their fights. The ones that he picked and choosed when he was leading a Justice Department in the state of Alabama were clearly not in line with an aggressive pursuit of civil rights, voting rights and the rights of gays and lesbians.

What he's done as a senator has consistently voting - voted against the interests of those folks, voted against things that are now law, like the Matthew Shepard Act. So this is not - if somebody tells you who they are, shows you who they are, has a 40-year career of being extreme and out of line even with many Republicans now, you have to believe what they're going to be when they become the highest law enforcement officer in this land. And that's why we all, not just me breaking tradition - all of us must speak out because the real challenge, I think, right now is that there's too much silence and not enough alarm about what is going to happen to the - if we don't stop this.

CORNISH: Now, the way you're speaking - people have commented that it sounds a little bit like campaigning. And I want you to respond to this statement from Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who says, I'm very disappointed that Senator Booker has chosen to start his 2020 presidential campaign by testifying against Senator Sessions. He says this hearing simply offers a platform for his presidential aspirations. Can I get your response?

BOOKER: You know, from the earliest days of my career, when I moved into housing projects in Newark to fight for low-income tenants, I've been a consistent person, battling my entire career to fight to protect disadvantaged communities. I know a lot of people want to try to cast aspersions on those efforts, but this is very much in line with where I've been in my career and my three years in the Senate, fighting every day to advance criminal justice reform. So this is an extraordinary candidate. He is out of line with even the Republican Party. It's going to necessitate extraordinary measures to try to stop what I believe, unfortunately, could very well happen to the American people under his leadership.

CORNISH: That's Cory Booker, a Democrat and Senator from New Jersey. Thank you so much.

BOOKER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.