President-elect Donald Trump on Friday named his earliest and staunchest supporter in the Senate, conservative Republican Jeff Sessions, to become the next U.S. attorney general, setting up a potentially difficult confirmation process.
If cleared for the job by his fellow senators, Sessions, 69, would lead the Justice Department and the FBI. He brings a record of controversial positions on race, immigration and criminal justice reform that Democrats may target.
Sessions was a federal prosecutor in 1986 when he became only the second nominee in 50 years to be denied confirmation as a federal judge. This came after allegations that he had made racist remarks, including testimony that he had called an African-American prosecutor “boy,” an allegation Sessions denied.
Sessions said he was not a racist but he said at his hearing that groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union could be considered “un-American.”
He also acknowledged that he had called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a “piece of intrusive legislation.”
Sessions, a four-term senator from Alabama, has friends on Capitol Hill. Convivial, with a pixie-like demeanor and soft Southern accent, his gentle manner belies his hard-line positions.
Democratic Senator Jack Reed described Sessions this way: “He’s someone I’ve worked with closely. He’s very honest, very decent, great integrity.”
But Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Reuters: “Our nation deserves an attorney general who will be committed to enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws and who will not turn the clock back on progress that has been made.”
Sessions’ office did not respond to a request for comment on his nomination or criticism.
Under Democratic President Barack Obama, the Justice Department opened investigations of 23 police departments around the country for patterns of civil rights violations, including systematic racial profiling and unlawful use of force. As attorney general, Sessions would have the discretion to drop investigations that are still open.
HARD LINE ON IMMIGRATION
Sessions’ hard-line and at times inflammatory statements on immigration are similar to Trump’s but have angered other members of Congress. He opposes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and was an enthusiastic backer of Trump’s promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
“There has been no harsher advocate for harsher, meaner treatment of immigrants in the Senate than Jeff Sessions, just hasn’t been,” said Democratic U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, a congressional advocate for immigration reform.Sessions also has questioned the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to everyone born in the United States, and opposes plans to admit more immigrants from war-torn Middle Eastern countries.
Sessions also was one of 31 senators who in 2010 voted against repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that banned gays from serving openly in the military, and he opposed lifting the ban on women serving in combat.
He has been a vocal opponent of regulatory efforts to combat climate change and during a 2014 event organized by Senate Democrats to raise awareness about the consequences of a warming planet, Sessions said they were wasting their time.
“There has been a lot of exaggeration. There has been a lot of hype,” Sessions said.
Sessions first endorsed Trump’s presidential bid in February, surprising those who had expected him to embrace Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a fellow Southerner and the favorite of the chamber’s most conservative wing.
Sessions remained Trump’s only backer in the Senate for months and became a powerful member of his inner circle. He has led Trump’s national security committee since March, and was named vice chairman of the transition’s executive committee last week.
In October, when Trump was under fire for bragging about groping women in a leaked video, dozens of Republican officials dropped their support of the candidate, and many urged him to drop out of the race.
But Sessions defended him and had to offer an apology after he called it “a stretch” to describe Trump’s language as advocating sexual assault.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, John Walcott and Bill Trott)