Why is Jeff Sessions such a controversial pick for US attorney general?

As the Senate prepares to vote on Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Justice, we explain why his nomination has been so fervently opposed

Jamiles Lartey / The Guardian / February 8, 2017

Who is Jeff Sessions?

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is a four-term junior senator from Alabama who, before being elected to that office in 1996, served as attorney general for the state. Sessions is a conservative Republican who is anti-abortion, anti-immigration, skeptical of climate change and hostile to same-sex marriage. On issues of criminal justice, Sessions has championed “law and order”, stern marijuana prohibition and the unregulated use of civil forfeiture by law enforcement.

Why did Donald Trump nominate him as attorney general?

After passing over some more well-known rumored contenders such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump picked Sessions, calling him “a world-class legal mind”. Trump continued in his statement: “Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him.”

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Sessions’ reputation as a hard-nosed proponent of “law and order” likely endeared him to Trump, as this kind of tough rhetoric was a major part of the president’s campaign message. This is a direct rebuke to the national and local trend of “smart on crime” efforts like those supported by former attorney generals Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, to ease some of the most draconian practices of the criminal justice system. Sessions’ early support for instituting some kind of ban on Muslim immigration and for a border wall with Mexico likely helped his case.

Trump has also repeatedly expressed the high value he places on the praise and loyalty of others, and it’s likely that Sessions’ early and fervent support of Trump’s candidacy helped him pull out in front of alternative contenders.

How likely is it that Sessions will be confirmed this week?

Sessions’ nomination made its way out of committee last week and, given the current makeup of the Senate, with Republicans in control of a slim 52-48 majority (one of whom is Sessions himself), appears to be a shoo-in for confirmation. This is despite a fast-growing petition to halt his confirmation that has received over 1 million signatures.

Unlike controversial education secretary Best DeVos’ confirmation, which saw two Republican defectors, forcing Vice-President Mike Pence to cast a tie-breaking vote, no GOP members have expressed any objection to their colleague Sessions. Indeed, the senator may earn votes from across the aisle, as conservative Democrat Joe Manchin has already expressed his support, calling Sessions “a friend”. Others could follow.

Why didn’t Sessions become a federal judge in the 1980s?

In 1986, Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions, then a US district attorney, to a federal judgeship. Sessions’ confirmation hearing failed to make it out of committee, an extremely rare occurrence, after concerns were raised about Sessions’ attitude towards race. Leading the charge against Sessions were then senators Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy.


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In those hearings, J Gerald Hebert, a former justice department civil rights attorney who worked with Sessions in Alabama, testified that Sessions had dismissed organisations such as the NAACP and the ACLU as “un-American” and suggested a white civil rights attorney was a race traitor for taking on a voting rights case in Alabama during the 1980s.

Senators also heard that Sessions had referred to a black official in his US attorney’s office as “boy” and told him to be careful what he said to white people. He denies this but has admitted to having once said he admired the KKK until he found out they smoked marijuana, calling the comment a joke.