President-elect Donald Trump on Friday selected Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as his attorney general, elevating one of his earliest congressional backers and one of the most conservative U.S. lawmakers to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Trump also named retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as his White House national security adviser and Kansas Republican Representative Mike Pompeo to run the Central Intelligence Agency.
Sessions “is a world-class legal mind and considered a truly great attorney general and U.S. attorney in the state of Alabama.,” Trump said in a statement. ”Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him.”
The incoming Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, said Sessions will face “tough questions,” even though he has been in the Senate since he was elected in 1996.
“Given some of his past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform, I am very concerned about what he would do with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and want to hear what he has to say,” he said in a statement.
Other Democrats were even harsher in their criticism, citing Sessions’s views on immigration and minority rights.
“If you have nostalgia for the days when blacks kept quiet, gays were in the closet, immigrants were invisible and women stayed in the kitchen, Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is your man,” Representative Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois said in a statement. “No senator has fought harder against the hopes and aspirations of Latinos, immigrants, and people of color than Senator Sessions.”
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a onetime Trump opponent mentioned more recently as a possibly attorney general candidate, said the choice of Sessions is “great news for all of us who revere the Constitution and the rule of law.”
The 69-year-old, four-term Alabama Republican is a hard-liner on free trade and immigration, arguing that prospective immigrants don’t have constitutional protections. He has opposed efforts to overhaul prison sentencing, back off the war on drugs and legalize marijuana.
Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, was one of the few lawmakers to defend Trump after he proposed a complete shutdown on Muslims entering the U.S. He told Stephen Bannon —the former Breitbart News chief named as Trump’s chief White House strategist — on a radio show in 2015 that Trump was "treading on dangerous ground" but it is "appropriate to begin to discuss" the issue.
The attorney general represents the U.S. in legal matters and gives advice to the president and government agencies. The Justice Department’s broad portfolio includes prosecution of white-collar crime and enforcement of antitrust and civil rights laws. Sessions would oversee all the U.S. attorneys’ offices.
Sessions was born in Selma, Alabama, the son of a country store owner. An Eagle Scout, Sessions received his undergraduate degree from Huntingdon College in Montgomery and his law degree from the University of Alabama. After some time in private practice, he became the U.S. attorney for Alabama in 1981 at age 34. Sessions has served as a captain in the Army Reserve and Alabama state attorney general.
One of his earliest decisions would be whether to follow through on Trump’s campaign promises to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the email practices of his election opponent, Hillary Clinton. Before the election, Sessions called for a special prosecutor.
Trump also has yet to say whether he’ll ask for the resignation of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, who he criticized over the handling of the investigation into Clinton and for not recommending criminal charges against her.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel to the conservative American Center for Law and Justice called Sessions’ selection “fantastic,” and praised his experience as both a federal prosecutor and as Alabama’s attorney general in phone interview on Friday
“Jeff Sessions would be a stellar attorney general and bring some stability back to the agency and institutional credibility back to the agency,” Sekulow said of the Justice Department.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a group that played a leading role in compelling the U.S. to find and release Clinton’s emails, added, “The Justice Department has been a locus of evil, so there’s a lot of work he has to do.”
Sessions would also be deeply involved in vetting potential Supreme Court picks for Trump, including one to fill the seat of Antonin Scalia, who died in February.
Sessions opposed all of President Barack Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court picks and also voted against the nomination of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, citing her support for the president’s executive actions that shielded some undocumented immigrants from deportation.
"At the outset of this nomination process, I said that no senator should vote to confirm anyone for this position — the top law enforcement job in America — who supported the president’s unlawful actions," he said of Lynch’s nomination.
It’s hard to imagine Sessions’s fellow senators staging a fight over his confirmation, since the chamber’s members usually show extra deference to their colleagues and allow presidents to select their cabinets. A recent rules change in the Senate also means that only 50 votes will be needed to advance Trump’s picks.
But there is likely to be scrutiny of his past in Alabama, particularly given the Justice Department’s role in protecting civil rights. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan picked Sessions for a judgeship, but his nomination never got out of committee after a firestorm over charges he had made racist statements.
Sessions acknowledged referring to the NAACP and other organizations as “communist inspired” and “un-American organizations with anti-traditional American values,” the New York Times reported in April 1986.
Sessions, though, eventually made it to the Senate and to a senior position on the Judiciary Committee.
Cornell Brooks, the president of the NAACP, said the choice of Sessions is “deeply disturbing” and that his record “raises serious questions” about whether he can serve as the top U.S. law enforcement officer.
“There appears to be a pattern of insensitivity towards civil rights or hostility toward civil rights with respect to the appointments or nominees thus far,” he said Friday in an interview.
Sessions has been hostile to gay rights, voting for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in 2006 and against the 2010 repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," the policy that banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
David Stacy, the government affairs director for Human Rights Campaign, told Metro Weekly that the prospect of Sessions as attorney general is "absolutely terrifying."
Sessions could also face questions over his defense of Trump’s vulgar remarks about women that were recorded by the television show "Access Hollywood." Sessions dismissed the notion that Trump was describing something akin to sexual assault.
“The last person women and families need in this job is someone who has repeatedly given a pass to individuals who commit acts of violence against abortion clinics, doesn’t take sexual assault seriously, and was determined to be too racist by a GOP-led Senate to become a federal judge,” Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement.
Sessions, who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee that oversees immigration, would also be heavily involved in the planned review of Obama’s executive orders, many of which Trump has promised to reverse. Sessions called Obama’s executive order that would have granted work permits to a broader group of undocumented immigrants “brazen” and ‘illegal.”
His position on Trump’s proposed Muslim ban could provoke the most scrutiny.
After Trump suggested a "total and complete shutdown on Muslims" entering the U.S., Sessions said, "It’s time for us to think this through and the classical, internal American religious principles I don’t think apply providing constitutional protections to persons not citizens who want to come here."
Still, he stopped short of fully endorsing the idea.
“As a principle, we want to be not condemnatory of other people’s religion,” he said to Bannon on the Breitbart News radio show last December. “And there are millions of wonderful, decent, good Muslims, hundreds of millions worldwide, and so we’ve got to be really careful that we don’t cross that line and I guess Mr. Trump has caused us all to think about it more concretely.”
Sessions strongly opposed a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul to reduce sentences on drug traffickers, although in 2010 he cut a deal with Democrats to reduce disparities between crack and cocaine sentences from 100:1 to 18:1.
In the Senate, Sessions also sits on the Armed Services, Budget and Environment and Public Works committees.
While most congressional Republicans spent much of the year avoiding talking about Trump, Sessions was an enthusiastic booster throughout, serving as a senior adviser on politics, national security and policy. Sessions serves a vice chairman of Trump’s transition.
In Trump, Sessions saw someone strong enough to smash the system in Washington that he says caters to big money interests like the Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street, particularly on trade and immigration.
"Trump has a way of driving a message so people hear it. I’ve been talking about it for years and nobody hears it," Sessions said in an interview before the Republican National Convention. "Trump has that gift."