In December, after presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the country, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a “sense of the Senate” resolution affirming that the United States must not bar people from the country because of their religion.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — a member of the Judiciary Committee, along with Leahy — voted against the resolution and delivered a 30-minute oration urging fellow senators to join him. The resolution, he warned, would make global migration to the United States a “human right.”
It would mean, he said, that the United States “could not favor for entry the moderate Muslim cleric over the radical Muslim cleric.” Or that a foreign cleric overseas could demand a tourist visa to deliver a sermon denouncing the U.S. Constitution “and claim religious discrimination” if it was not approved.
“I think,’’ Sessions said, “it is a dangerous step.”
Although the measure passed the committee, it failed in the full Senate.
President-elect Trump has chosen Sessions, who has served in the Senate for 20 years, to be the next attorney general — a position that will give him the platform to shape civil rights policy and to defend the constitutionality of any policies that effectively restrict Muslim immigration, legal and civil liberties experts warn.
Sessions has also been dogged with accusations of racism, which sank his nomination to become a federal judge after President Ronald Reagan nominated him 30 years ago. At his Senate hearing, Sessions said he was not a racist, but several Justice Department employees testified that he had used racist language.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, lauded Sessions in a statement Friday as a “respected member and former ranking member” of the committee who has worked with Democrats on major legislation. Grassley predicted that the committee will approve his nomination for consideration by the full Senate.
“He knows the Justice Department as a former U.S. attorney, which would serve him very well in this position,” Grassley said.
The appointment of Sessions is expected to bring sweeping changes to the way the Justice Department operated under Loretta E. Lynch and her predecessor, Eric H. Holder Jr., who, when he was nominated to be the first black attorney general, pledged to make rebuilding the Civil Rights Division his top priority.
Several former Justice officials and Democratic lawmakers predicted that Sessions would reverse the emphasis on civil rights and criminal-justice reform that Holder put in place.
“From his time as U.S. attorney through his service on the Judiciary Committee, he has left serious doubts about whether he would faithfully enforce civil rights laws as attorney general,” former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. “The Civil Rights Division was gutted during the last Republican administration, and the burden of proof is on Senator Sessions to show that he would not follow that same path.”
Sessions voted to confirm Holder as attorney general, but he voted against Lynch, citing her statements that President Obama’s executive actions on immigration passed legal and constitutional muster. Sessions and other Republicans considered those measures to be presidential overreach.
“Ms. Lynch has said flat-out that she supports those policies and is committed to defending them in court,” Sessions said at the time. “We do not have to confirm someone to the highest law enforcement position in America if that someone is publicly committed to denigrating Congress.”
Obama’s Justice Department stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act and successfully argued the historic same-sex marriage case last year before the Supreme Court. Sessions has opposed same-sex marriage and has a zero rating from the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, expressed dismay about Session’s nomination. It only adds “to a growing list” of nominees “with troubling pasts, and troubling histories of bigotry and intolerance,” Hooper said.
George J. Terwilliger III, who served as deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush and has known Sessions for nearly three decades, disputed the characterization. “I can say unequivocally there’s not a racist bone in the guy’s body,” he said.
Democratic lawmakers on Friday promised a tough and thorough vetting and confirmation process.
“I know Senator Sessions, and we work out in the gym, but the fact that he is a senator does not absolve him from answering tough questions in the confirmation process,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the incoming minority leader.
“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 I want to hear what he has to say,” Schumer said.
A former aide to Sessions said that, as attorney general, he will make national security and fighting terrorism a top priority.
“Sessions is of the mind that the most essential duty of government is to protect its citizens,” the aide said. Sessions opposed closing the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and bringing terrorist detainees to the United States for trial in federal courts. “He felt it would needlessly eliminate an important tool in fighting terrorism and would needlessly put our citizens at risk,” the aide said.
Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions, 69, who was born in Selma, Ala., began his career as a prosecutor in 1975 in the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of Alabama. In 1981, President Reagan nominated him to be the U.S. attorney for that district, where he served for 12 years.
In 1986, Reagan nominated him to be a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. But at his Senate confirmation hearing, Justice Department lawyers who had worked with him testified that he had made racist and other incendiary statements. One of those lawyers, J. Gerald Hebert — now the director of the voting rights and redistricting program at the Campaign Legal Center — said that Sessions had called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union “un-American” and “Communist-
Thomas Figures testified that Sessions said he had thought the Ku Klux Klan was “okay until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions later apologized for the comment, saying he was not serious when he said it.
Witnesses also testified that after disagreement between a black and a white member of his staff, Sessions admonished the black staffer to be “careful what he said to white folks,” and once referred to a black lawyer in the U.S. attorney’s office as “boy.”
Sessions denied the allegations, but he was not confirmed.
Aides to Session said that he was not insensitive to African Americans and pointed out that as a young Republican at Huntingdon College in 1966, Sessions campaigned against segregationist candidates such as Lurleen Wallace, who was running for governor to sustain the policies of her husband, then-governor George Wallace, a staunch opponent of desegregation. George Wallace was banned by state law from serving consecutive terms.
In 1994, Sessions was elected attorney general of Alabama. He was elected to the U.S. Senate two years later.
Sessions, who was the first senator to endorse Trump, in February, first met him in 2005 when Trump was criticizing the United Nations’ plan for a $1.2 billion renovation of its New York City headquarters. Sessions invited him to testify about it before a Senate subcommittee hearing. After the hearing, they were out of touch until last year, when they had a phone call about immigration policy and Trump tried to get Sessions’s endorsement.
Mike DeBonis, Robert Costa, Matt Zapotosky and Julie Tate contributed to this report.