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Wisconsin U.S. Senate

Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison; Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh

Every United States senator swears an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and promises to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office...”

It is a serious commitment.

But not every senator takes it seriously.

Last month, the Senate confirmed Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to serve as the 84th attorney general of the United States.

The Sessions nomination was opposed by civil rights groups that recalled his scandalous prosecutions of voting rights activists in Alabama, by LGBTQ groups that were troubled by his history of fierce opposition to equal protection under the law, and by women’s rights groups that feared he would use his position to undermine reproductive rights. And it was opposed by millions of Americans who worried about the shadowy alliance between Sessions and Trump administration insiders such as White House strategist-in-chief Steve Bannon and disgraced National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Serious senators worried about the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian officials. They asked Sessions whether he could be counted on to hold the president and his administration to account.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, recognized the importance of the Sessions vote. She approached it thoughtfully, explaining that she set a high standard for who might serve as “America’s top law enforcement official.” She met with Sessions, questioned him and determined finally that she did not have faith that he would serve ably or well.

Concerned about “possible ties between Trump associates and Russia, and Vladimir Putin and the Russian government’s intervention in our election,” she called weeks ago for Sessions to recuse himself from Justice Department inquiries into those issues and to appoint an independent special counsel to examine them.

Baldwin took her oath seriously.

What of Wisconsin’s other senator?

Ron Johnson announced he was glad to vote for the nominee because “I know Senator Sessions to be a man of integrity,” and allowed as how he looked forward “to working with him as our next attorney general.”

No skepticism. No due diligence. Just an announcement that he knew the guy and, hey, he’s cool.

Ron Johnson did not take seriously his constitutionally dictated responsibility to determine whether Jeff Sessions was fit to serve as the nation’s top law-enforcement officer.

Just weeks after the vote, Sessions is in crisis. It has been revealed that, though he told the Senate Judiciary Committee he had not spoken with Russian officials, he had done just that.

Sessions took no action to address this conflict until it was revealed by The Washington Post. Only when his own Russian tie had been revealed did Sessions appear before a hastily assembled press conference to announce his recusal from Department of Justice inquiries into Russian meddling with American politics.

Sessions should have resigned in shame. But there is plenty of shame to go around.

While Sen. Baldwin can be proud that she respected her oath and sought to avert the Sessions catastrophe, Sen. Johnson failed his state and his country.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times