Jeff Sessions, a right-wing hawk to lead the US Justice Department

 Jeff Sessions

Jeff Sessions

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s pick for US attorney-general, is known as a right-wing, anti-immigration hardliner. He also has the dubious distinction of once being shunned for a federal judgeship over allegations of racism.

Sessions’ appointment to the job – the US equivalent of a justice minister – rewards a Trump loyalist who has whole-heartedly endorsed some of the president-elect’s most controversial pledges, including building a wall along the US border with Mexico.

It signals a sharp break from the policies of the Justice Department under President Barack Obama, suggesting the 45th US president intends to make good on promises of a hard line on immigration, both legal and illegal.

Sessions – born Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III – was the first senator to declare his support for the billionaire tycoon. He was seen sporting a “Make America Great Again” cap at a Trump rally as early as August 2015, when talk of Trump clinching the Republican nomination still elicited disbelief and amusement.

Since then, the 69-year-old veteran Republican senator has been credited with helping to shape virtually every aspect of Trump’s policies, most notably regarding immigration and national security.

Confirming his appointment on Friday, the future White House resident described Sessions as a “world-class legal mind”, praising his record as a former US attorney, and later state attorney-general, in his home state of Alabama.

Immigration hardliner

Like the president-elect, Sessions is an advocate of low taxes and small government. A climate sceptic, he is critical of global trade agreements pushed by the Obama administration. He also opposes abortion, an issue on which Trump has been both less vocal and less consistent.

His enthusiastic support for the Republican candidate’s pledge to deport all undocumented migrants, and reduce legal immigration, has attracted the most attention.

A mere glance at his website reveals a near-obsessive interest in immigration-related issues, which account for seven of his last 10 news releases – the other three involving the death of two colleagues and the naming of a US battleship.

In his 20 years at the Senate, Sessions has opposed nearly every piece of legislation that has included a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the US illegally, according to the Washington Post. He has also fought legal immigration, including visa programmes for foreign workers in science, mathematics and high-tech.

Last year, the Alabama senator wrote a 25-page report blaming job losses and welfare dependency on immigration, and calling for a curb on work visas.

“For decades, the American people have begged and pleaded for a just and lawful system of immigration that serves their interests,” he wrote. “For years, Americans have been scorned and mocked by the elite denizens of Washington and Wall Street for having legitimate concerns about how uncontrolled immigration impacts their jobs, wages, schools, hospitals, police departments, and communities.”

Allegations of racially-charged statements, which derailed Sessions’ career in the past, have also been likened to Trump’s derogatory remarks about Mexicans and his vow to bar Muslims from entering the US.

Obama ‘emboldened our enemies’

Civil rights advocates who have seen their causes championed at the Justice Department for the last eight years have already raised concerns that a Trump administration would scale back those efforts.

They expressed alarm at the appointment of Sessions – who, incidentally, was born in 1946 in Selma, Alabama, where the historic 1965 civil rights march to Montgomery began.

A statement from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) blasted Sessions’ “decades-long record – from his early days as a prosecutor to his present role as a senator – of opposing civil rights and equality”.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) noted that Sessions’ “positions on LGBT rights, capital punishment, abortion rights, and presidential authority in times of war have been contested by the ACLU and other civil-rights organizations”.

Sessions has in the past warned that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division should not be used as “a sword to assert inappropriate claims that have the effect of promoting political agendas”.

He has been sharply critical of the department’s policies under the Obama administration, with a particular focus on national security.

Sessions said the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies had “emboldened our enemies” and failed to address border control. He has warned against the administration’s efforts to close Guantanamo and has condemned its decision to afford the legal protections of American courts to terror detainees.

The Republican senator has also defended mass surveillance by the NSA, telling Obama’s first attorney-general, Eric Holder, in one committee hearing on warrantless wiretapping that “we’ve exaggerated the extent to which this is somehow violative of our Constitution”.

‘Disgrace to the Justice Department’

Several of these stances place Sessions to the right of mainstream Republicans, meaning his confirmation by the Senate could be a challenge.

The GOP will have only a 52-48 advantage in the chamber, assuming it wins an upcoming Senate election in Louisiana. That means Sessions can’t afford to lose many votes from members of his own party.

The last time Sessions faced a Senate confirmation – as Ronald Reagan’s nominee to be a federal judge in 1986 – his bid ended in a humiliating climb-down. And that was also a Republican-controlled Senate.

The Senate’s Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 against confirming him for a federal judgeship after he was accused of making racially charged remarks while US attorney in Alabama. The rare move made him only the second nominee in 50 years to be rejected for the job.

During the hearings, Sessions was accused of calling the NAACP and the ACLU “un-American, Communist-inspired organisations” and joking that he thought the Ku Klux Klan “was OK” until he learned they smoked marijuana. He also faced accusations that he repeatedly called a black assistant attorney “boy”.

Sessions strongly denied ever calling the assistant attorney “boy”, but his otherwise clumsy defence failed to sway the panel.

In a heated exchange with then Senator Joe Biden, Sessions protested: “I’m often loose with my tongue. I may have said something about the NAACP being un-American or Communist, but I meant no harm by it.”

His record was heavily criticised by the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who said he was unqualified to be a federal judge because of his attitude towards black people.

“Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past,” Kennedy said. “He is, I believe, a disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position.”

The grueling hearing left Sessions’ career “in tatters”, observers commented at the time. But he bounced back a decade later, winning the first of four consecutive Senate races in 1996.

The Republican from Alabama eventually avenged his earlier humiliation, in 2009 becoming the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee – the very one that had rejected him years earlier.