ALISON STEWART: The confirmation hearings for President-elect Trump’s controversial pick for U.S. attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, are next week, but already his detractors are making themselves heard.
The NAACP mounted protests across Alabama on Tuesday against the Sessions nomination. In Mobile, the group’s national president, Cornell Brooks, and five others staged a sit-in at the senator’s local office. They were finally arrested for trespassing, when they refused to leave as the office closed last night.
Meanwhile, more than 1,100 law professors wrote to leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and said, in part — quote — “Nothing in Senator Sessions’ public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal judge.”
Sessions’ own Senate career began 20 years ago, but that failed confirmation battle still echoes in this new fight. The NAACP and others cite at least three reasons to disqualify him as attorney general, on voting rights, his support for stricter I.D. laws and criticism of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, on civil rights, claims Sessions has repeatedly supported attempts to overturn desegregation.
On criminal justice reform, the NAACP Highlights his opposition to consent decrees to reform police departments. All of this comes to a head next week, at Sessions’ confirmation hearings.
The big question is, what kind of attorney general could Sessions be?
For an idea, let’s take closer look at his record in the Senate, as well as his career as a prosecutor in Alabama.
We are joined by John Sharp, a reporter for the Alabama Media Group, and Sari Horwitz. She covers the Department of Justice for The Washington Post.
John, I want to start with you.
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has never lost an election. So over the course of his career as a prosecutor, as Alabama’s attorney general, and as a senator, what contributes to his popularity back at home in Alabama?
JOHN SHARP, AL.COM: Well, he stayed true to his roots over the years. He’s an ultra-conservative politician, and he’s never really wavered from that.
And Alabama is one of the reddest of the red states. It has supported a GOP presidential candidate since 1980. It’s only getting redder. Donald Trump’s returns on November 8 were the most that a presidential candidate’s had in Alabama since Richard Nixon in 1972.
So Senator Sessions has — you know, he’s been a darling for the conservative movement in Alabama. And he has a spotless election record. His conservative viewpoints on anything from gun control to immigration reform to religious liberty has really sold well with the conservative voters here in this state who turn out and dominate on Election Days.
ALISON STEWART: What’s an example of a way he stayed true to his roots on the local level?
JOHN SHARP: Back in the early 2000s, he — The Mobile Press-Register at the time ran a series of stories about dental services in underserved areas, in small rural counties.
And Senator Sessions, he saw those stories. He was interested in them. And he traveled around to various county where’s these clinics were located and people weren’t receiving dental services. And, you know, he made quite a high-profile splash at the time, at least on a local level, about wanting to get federal money set aside for some of these clinics to help support them and provide services for folks at the time that were not receiving them.
ALISON STEWART: Sari, when Sessions was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, he was described by one paper as an in-the-trenches prosecutor. On the national level, how does he work as a senator?
SARI HORWITZ, The Washington Post: Well, he’s very respected by his colleagues. He’s courteous and friendly. And he works well in the Senate. He’s been there for 20 years.
But he’s really known for some very extreme views on immigration, hard-line views on immigration. And, in some cases, he’s actually struck out in opposition to his Republican colleagues and spoken out against legislation, especially on immigration, that was supported by his Republican colleagues.
ALISON STEWART: John, when Sessions was up for a federal judgeship in the 1980s, he had some very tough hearings. There was testimony that he called another attorney, a black attorney boy, that he joked about the KKK, that he had disparaging words about the NAACP and the ACLU. He obviously didn’t get that post.
How did that play pack home?
JOHN SHARP: Well, that was an initial setback for Senator Sessions, but it played — it played really well back at home.
At the time, the people that were opposing Senator Sessions were some of the big names of the Democratic Party back then, Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, Senator Paul Simon from Illinois.
And folks back home in Alabama saw that and looked upon the whole situation as, well, it’s us vs. them.
ALISON STEWART: Jeff Sessions was one of the first senators, if not the first senator, to support candidate Trump. And it’s such an interesting mix. You have this millionaire from New York and this down-to-his-roots son of the South. Where do they meet?
SARI HORWITZ: You’re right. He was actually the first senator in February to endorse Donald Trump.
They met several years ago. Donald Trump came to testify on Capitol Hill, and they really hit it off. They’re both — they both have deeply conservative views. They see the world the same way. They see the world as sort of divided between working class and the elites.
Senator Sessions refers to the elites as masters of the universe. I think both Donald Trump and Senator Sessions see themselves, they position themselves as champions of the working class.
ALISON STEWART: Sari, almost two years ago, Jeff Sessions was on the Hill, and he was addressing attorney general candidate Loretta Lynch, and he said this:
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-Ala.): You will have to tell the president yes or no on something that he may want to do. Are you able and willing to tell the president of the United States no if he asks to — permission or a legal opinion that supports an action you believe is wrong?
ALISON STEWART: Sari, has Jeff Sessions ever been in that position, when he’s had to go against the grain, when he’s had to say no or yes to something like that?
SARI HORWITZ: I remember that moment when he said that to Loretta Lynch, and he actually ended up voting against Loretta Lynch, partially because of her answer, which was that she supported President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
Jeff Sessions himself has gone against the grain, but it’s really been in the Senate, again, against his own party, when he took on views on immigration that were opposed by other Republicans. As I said, the Republicans backed and Democrats in 2013 backed an immigration bill, and he spoke out strongly against it.
So he has gone against the grain when he really, deeply believes in something, as he does on immigration.
ALISON STEWART: Sari, Senator Sessions has described the attorney general’s position as, he or she set the tone for law enforcement in America.
Do we have any idea what his tone might be based on his actions as senator?
SARI HORWITZ: You know, it’s hard to say how he will be as attorney general, but civil rights groups are very concerned.
And this is what we have seen in the last couple of days, the NAACP Staging a sit-in in Mobile, Alabama, six people arrested, the ACLU today coming out with a big report critical of Jeff Sessions. They don’t take a position a candidate, for or against, but very critical, because they’re worried about what he will be like as attorney general, especially in the area of civil rights.
They’re worried about the Civil Rights Division that under Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch enforced strongly the Voting Rights Act and oversight of police departments. The Justice Department in the last couple years has sued many police departments across America and forced reforms in civil liberties for police departments.
And they have sued two states, specifically North Carolina and Texas, on the Voting Rights Act.
ALISON STEWART: Sari Horwitz of The Washington Post, and John Sharp from the Alabama Media Group, thank you so much.
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