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Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is about to face a wave of intense scrutiny as he seeks confirmation to become attorney general and head the Justice Department in President-elect Donald Trump’s upcoming administration.
The Alabama Republican’s confirmation hearing began Tuesday, and the multi-day affair is likely to contain plenty of fireworks.
When first nominated by Trump in November, the president-elect said it was an “honor to nominate” a “world-class legal mind” to the position.
Sessions said, should he be confirmed, that he will give “all my strength to advance” its “highest ideals” and will be dedicated to “fairness and impartiality.”
But Sessions is likely to face heavy examination over his overall record, as well as decades-old allegations of racism that are now certain to be hashed out in public.
Sessions, prior to his 20-year Senate career, served as a US attorney and as attorney general of Alabama. While serving as a US attorney for the state’s southern district, he was nominated to be a federal district court judge by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
His nomination, however, was rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee – a committee on which he now serves – because of racially charged comments and actions that he denied. It was only the second time in nearly 50 years the committee stunted a judicial nomination.
J. Gerald Hebert, then working on voting-rights cases for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, spent time in Alabama working with Sessions. He testified in front of the panel that Sessions was “not a very sensitive person when it comes to race relations.” Hebert testified that Sessions had said a white lawyer described as a race traitor “probably is,” and that the ACLU and NAACP were “communist-inspired.”
Thomas Figures, a former assistant US attorney who died last year, provided back up to Hebert’s testimony on Sessions regarding organizations such as the NAACP. Sessions testified that he recalled saying that “when” such civil-rights organizations “demand more than is legitimate, it hurts their position,” he said.
Figures, who worked with Sessions, said he was warned by the now-Alabama senator to “be careful what you say to white folks” after Figures, the only black assistant US attorney in the office, told a white secretary that she had made an offensive comment. He also testified that Sessions and two others in the office had called him “boy,” which Sessions categorically denied.
“I have never used the word ‘boy’ to describe a black, nor would I tolerate it in my office,” Sessions testified.
Figures also said Sessions remarked that he thought Ku Klux Klan members were “OK,” until he found out they smoked marijuana. Sessions later testified that he was joking.
Sessions was also accused of voicing complaints about the Voting Rights Act.
Hebert, who now works as the director of voting rights and redistricting program at the Campaign Legal Center, told Business Insider that he was “extremely unhappy to hear” Sessions was selected for the post.
“Because I think that he has a demonstrated record of anti-civil rights [and] anti-equality,” Hebert said Friday. “I don’t think he has a good grasp on issues about voting rights. I think a lot of his views are just plain wrong in light of facts.”
“He has opinions that are based on suspicion rather than facts,” he continued. “And to have somebody like that heading up the Justice Department, the chief law enforcement officer in the United States, is of great concern to me.”
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Sessions, the first senator to come out in support of Trump on the campaign trail, is known for his hardline stance on immigration, his protectionist platform on trade, and his opposition toward bipartisan proposals to cut mandatory minimum prison sentences.
“When Trump on election night came out and said he was going to be kind of a uniter for all people, this sends the opposite message in my view,” Hebert said. “And he’s got a demonstrated record of making racially insensitive remarks in the 1980s that he’s never really apologized for or backed off of. He’s claimed that he’s not a racist, but anybody can make a claim, it’s what your record shows that’s important. He has a record of pretty clearly opposing civil rights enforcement and opposing the laws themselves.”
Hebert said that with issues “of race and law enforcement” being at the forefront of the US justice discussion, the nomination of Sessions “sends a very bad message.” And he said he does not believe Sessions’ views have evolved since the 1980s is a “positive” way.
“I think he’s done things since the 1980s in the area of race, ethnicity, and he’s made statements about nominees that have shown that he remains racially insensitive,” Hebert said, pointing to Sessions’ support of controversial voter ID laws whose critics say prevents many in minority communities from being able to cast ballots.
While many Democrats have been up in arms about Trump’s appointment of Breitbart News executive Steve Bannon as White House chief strategist, Hebert said the consequences of a Justice Department run by Sessions will be of much greater importance.
“Well, the two positions couldn’t be more different,” he said. “One is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. You make decisions about who’s going to get prosecuted, what laws are going to be enforced, what the priorities are going to be for the thousands of lawyers who work there, and you reach literally every corner of America and the world, for that matter. This is a far more important position and one that has far greater and far-reaching consequences.”
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Jason Miller, a spokesman for Trump’s transition, came to Sessions’ defense in a conference call with reporters when the Alabama senator was first tapped. He said Sessions is “universally respected across party lines.”
“When Sen. Sessions was US Attorney, he filed a number of desegregation lawsuits in Alabama and supported a 30-year extension of the Civil Rights Act, voted for [former Attorney General] Eric Holder, and spearheaded [the] effort to give a congressional gold medal to Rosa Parks.”
Miller was confident Sessions had the support to be confirmed, adding that former Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania later said his vote against Sessions in the 1980s was a mistake.
Sessions, who is generally well-liked in the Senate, didn’t receive the same sort of backlash as Bannon’s appointment from Democrats in Congress when he was announced late last year.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut called Sessions a “respected colleague” who “expects the same exacting, serious scrutiny that any other Attorney General nominee would receive.” Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said citizens “deserve” to know about Sessions’ record “at the public” confirmation hearing.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, however, signaled a potential confirmation battle. He said that even though he and Sessions “work out in the gym … the fact that he is a senator does not absolve him from answering tough questions in the confirmation process.”
“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,” Schumer continued in a statement.
The strongest statement against Sessions from congressional Democrats came from Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois.
“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,” he said, using Sessions’ full legal name.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also provided some strong words about Sessions, advising Trump to “reverse his decision.”
“30 yrs ago, a GOP Senate rejected @SenatorSessions’ judicial nomination, affirming no compromise with racism; no negotiation with hate,” she posted to Twitter. “Today, a new GOP Senate must decide whether self-interest & political cowardice will prevent them from once again doing what is right.”
Elected Republicans presented universal praise for Trump’s selection of Sessions as his nomination for attorney general.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas called it “great news,” while Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called Sessions a “principled and good man” who will “restore honor” to the Justice Department.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky tried to build the case for why Sessions would be a fair leader for the department, saying he “strongly” supported Trump’s decision.
McConnell noted that Sessions worked in a bipartisan fashion to reduce sentencing disparities for “certain drug offenses,” in addition to combating sexual assault in prison
“Jeff is principled, forthright, and hardworking,” he wrote. “He cares deeply about his country and the Department he will be nominated to lead. … Jeff has always looked out for the safety, security and freedoms of his constituents and the nation.”