When Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts began reading a letter penned by Coretta Scott King that was critical of President Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, her GOP colleagues invoked Rule 19 to have her silenced for the remainder of the debate.
The ensuing controversy was heavily circulated on social media, drawing far more negative media attention for Sessions than if Warren were allowed to finish her time on the floor.
On Feb. 7, Warren took to the Senate podium to blast Sessions' nomination for attorney general, asserting that the Alabama lawmaker's history of racial controversy made him unfit for the position. To support her argument, she produced a letter written in 1986 by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that had proven influential in toppling Sessions' bid for a federal judgeship 30 years ago.
The Senate Majority Leader, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, cut Warren off, asserting that she had violated Senate Rule 19 by impugning the character of a fellow senator. The chamber held a vote on excluding Warren from any further discussion, which passed by 49 to 43 along party lines, The Washington Post reports.
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"I literally can't be recognized on the floor of the Senate," Warren told CNN. "I have become a nonperson during the discussion of Jeff Sessions."
The social media reaction was swift, with millions of Facebook users watching footage of the incident on their streams. On Twitter, the hashtag #LetLizSpeak speedily began to trend, with Warren supporters voicing outrage that she would not be allowed to read a letter penned by Coretta.
In 1986, Sessions had been nominated for the federal bench. During his confirmation hearings before a GOP-majority Senate Judiciary Committee, he faced multiple accusations of racism from Alabama colleagues. King had written a letter to the committee urging them to reject his nomination, citing his record on African-American voting rights.
"Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts," Coretta wrote, according to USA Today. "Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters."
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Throughout his confirmation hearing, Sessions had denied the accusations that he was a racist. His confirmation was denied by a vote of 10 to 8, resulting in the withdrawal of his nomination, according to ABC News.
On the Senate floor, McConnell defended his motion to silence Warren.
"She was warned," McConnell said. "She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."
Democratic senators blasted their GOP colleagues for silencing Warren, with Democratic Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado and Jeff Merkley of Oregon both reading from Coretta's letter on the chamber floor. Republican senators pushed back, accusing the Democrats of lacking decorum.
On Feb. 8, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas criticized Warren for her conduct. Among Sessions' staunchest defenders, Cruz told Fox News that Warren's accusations against the Alabama senator were "slanders, demonstrably [false] and ugly."