President Trump listens as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, newly sworn in by Vice President Pence, speaks inthe Oval Office in February. Sessions has announced that the Justice Department is seeking to curb affirmative action in a university admissions case. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s internal announcement indicating that the Justice Department is seeking to curb affirmative action in a university admissions case has roused President Trump’s conservative base by seizing on a longtime grievance of the right at a moment when the administration is struggling to fulfill core Republican promises.

Sessions’s apparent intention to prohibit “intentional race-based discrimination” is also a window into the direction he is pulling the department’s Civil Rights Division in his effort to reverse Obama administration policies on a range of issues, including criminal justice, policing and voting rights.

For a Republican Party still searching for consensus in the Trump era, Sessions’s moves signal that the administration is embracing the base during a time of turbulence and tension, with heavy attention being paid to the concerns of the white voters who lifted Trump into the presidency.

When Trump publicly attacked Sessions last week for his decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe, conservative groups and Republican lawmakers swiftly rallied to the attorney general’s defense. They argued Sessions — more than any other Cabinet member — has delivered quickly and concretely on Trump’s priorities, from his crackdown on illegal immigration and sanctuary cities to his overhaul of the department’s criminal-charging policy.

John F. Kelly, the new White House chief of staff, called Sessions on Saturday, the day after he was appointed, to assure him that his position as attorney general is safe and to tell him that the Trump White House supports his work and wants him to continue, according to two people familiar with the conversation. Although the president is still unhappy with Sessions, Kelly told him that Trump does not plan to fire him or want him to resign, the person said. Kelly’s call came after a week of criticism in interviews and tweets by Trump of his attorney general.

(Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Some Republican operatives also see the affirmative action initiative as a strategic play by the White House to rally middle-class and upper-middle-class white voters, especially as the Republican agenda on Capitol Hill has stalled.

“This touches a lot of issues and talks right to the folks who look at college admissions and believe slots for their kids are being taken, whether it’s by illegal immigrants or by other groups,” said Brett O’Donnell, a veteran Republican consultant. “It strikes to the heart of how they feel college is increasingly unaffordable and sometimes impossible to get into.”

Linda Chavez, the founder and chairman of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity and the former head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Ronald Reagan, called opposition to race-based affirmative action “a long-standing conservative approach.”

“It isn’t just white students who are excluded,” Chavez said. “Probably the biggest group of people who are affected by this are Asian students. But, it also isn’t a service to the students who get admitted under those different qualifications because many of them struggle.”

Polling reflects the unease among Trump voters. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last year showed 44 percent of registered voters who supported Trump saw “whites losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics” as a bigger problem than minorities “losing out.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement, “Press reports regarding the personnel posting in the Civil Rights Division have been inaccurate. The posting sought volunteers to investigate one administrative complaint filed by a coalition of 64 Asian American associations in May 2015 that the prior Administration left unresolved. The complaint alleges racial discrimination against Asian Americans in a university’s admissions policy and practices.”

(Monica Akhtar,Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

She continued, “This Department of Justice has not received or issued any directive, memorandum, initiative, or policy related to university admissions in general. The Department of Justice is committed to protecting all Americans from all forms of illegal race-based discrimination.”

But two people familiar with discussions in the Civil Rights Division said the announcement came after career staffers who specialize in education issues refused to work on the investigation out of concerns it was contrary to the division’s long-standing approach to civil rights in education.

Civil rights groups Wednesday lashed out at the initiative and said Sessions may be trying to end college affirmative action programs that allow schools to promote more diversity on campus by considering race in college applications. For generations, up until the mid-1960s, African Americans were systematically denied admission to universities, they said.

“Affirmative action is rooted in our nation’s fundamental commitment to equality, a commitment this administration woefully lacks and has expressed hostility toward,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“Attorney General Sessions reportedly intends to waste taxpayer resources re-litigating last year’s Supreme Court ruling upholding decades of precedent in favor of affirmative action in higher education,” Ifill said.

In two cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that schools have a compelling interest in creating a diverse student body and may use race as one of multiple factors in admissions decisions. In June 2016, the court ruled 4 to 3 that a race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Texas was constitutional.

Critics of affirmative action say the Supreme Court rulings have left an opening to challenge race-conscious policies, and federal cases are pending against Harvard College and the University of North Carolina.

Both cases allege that race-
conscious admissions policies result in discrimination against Asian American applicants.

“Affirmative action in America today is no longer a black-white issue. We are a multiracial, multiethnic nation,” said Edward Blum, president of the anti-affirmative-action Project on Fair Representation. He played a key role in bringing the Texas case to the Supreme Court and has brought the two cases that challenge admissions policies at Harvard and UNC.

Blum said he hopes one or both cases will eventually reach the Supreme Court and he would welcome the Trump administration’s support.

Sessions has long faced questions about his attitudes and actions regarding racial justice. In 1986, a Republican-led Senate committee rejected his nomination by Reagan for a federal judgeship amid allegations of racism. In January, civil rights groups spoke out against his nomination during a bitter confirmation hearing. For the first time, a sitting senator, Cory Booker (D-N.J.), testified against Sessions, focusing on his civil rights record.

It is unclear how much Sessions has communicated with Trump, if at all, on affirmative action, according to White House officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. They instead pointed to the attorney general’s activities on combating gangs, illegal immigration and now affirmative action as part of an ongoing effort to recover his personal and political capital with the president.

Still, two White House advisers — chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, whom Trump calls “my two Steves” — are passionate supporters of the hard-line ideology that is shaping Sessions’s priorities as attorney general, and they both have a history of criticizing affirmative action.

When Miller was a student at Duke University in 2006, he wrote that “so-called affirmative action” is a “devastating, paternalistic policy endorsed by white liberals more concerned with how they look to their elitist friends than to the well-being of the minorities they claim to want to help.”

Bannon oversaw Breitbart, the conservative news site, when it ran headlines asserting that affirmative action “humiliates blacks.”

Bannon and Miller echo the president’s instincts about what his base — which Trump calls “my people” — wants from the administration: a mix of grievance-
infused politics, populism and hostility toward anything viewed as “politically correct.”

Emma Brown and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.