Jeff Sessions' confirmation hearing to be United States attorney general slipped into a comfortable rhythm by its third hour.
The Alabama senator defended himself against allegations that he called the NAACP "un-American" and said that the Ku Klux Klan was "okay" until he "learned that they smoked marijuana.” He repackaged a 1985 case in which he unsuccessfully prosecuted three black voting rights activists for voter fraud as one aimed at protecting voting rights. He answered questions about his deeply conservative record on abortion, criminal justice, immigration, and torture with a repeated insistence that, as attorney general, he would enforce the laws as they are written by Congress.
And that was the main conceit he returned to repeatedly—that Sessions the policymaker and ideologue would be a different man than Sessions the attorney general. Which is what makes an exchange Sessions had with Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator from Illinois, such an important one.
Here's the bulk of what was said by Durbin:
Since joining the Senate in 1997, you have voted against every immigration bill that included a path to citizenship for the undocumented. You have called the DREAM Act… as a 'reckless proposal for mass amnesty.' You opposed the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill which passed the Senate four years ago. You have objected to immigrants volunteering to serve in our armed forces saying, 'In terms of who's going most likely to be a spy, somebody from Colman, Alabama, or someone from Kenya?'…
Senator Sessions there is not a spot of evidence in your public career to suggest that as attorney general you would use the authority of that office to resolve the challenges of our broken immigration system in a fair and humane manner. Tell me I'm wrong.
Sessions replied, "Well you are wrong, Senator Durbin. I am going to follow the laws passed by Congress."
This moment seemed to reveal the logical endpoint of the obstruction that conservative lawmakers like Sessions, along with several of his Republican colleagues, have repeatedly engaged in to undermine immigration reform.
The policy vacuum created by that obstruction now stands a good chance of being filled by regressive legislation pushed through by Republican majorities in Congress and signed, happily, by the anti-immigrant president-elect who shares Sessions' fondness for mass deportations and border walls.
So Sessions got to have it both ways during his hearing. Sessions the attorney general nominee got to feign neutrality about enforcing the law as it's written when, in a year's time, the law may almost certainly line up with the policies—like deporting DACA recipients (something Sessions all but endorsed during the hearing) and undocumented immigrants—Sessions the policymaker has been pushing since he came into office 20 years ago.
It's small satisfaction that Durbin called him on it, but at least it's honest.