Sessions known for tough stance on immigration -- and failed judgeship


JUDY WOODRUFF: And now for our in-depth look at President-elect Trump's latest picks for his top jobs in his administration.

We start with Senator Jeff Sessions, one of the most conservative U.S. lawmakers, and potentially the nation's next top law enforcement official.

John Yang begins.

JOHN YANG: Nine months ago, Jeff Sessions became the first senator to back candidate Donald Trump.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-Ala.): I am pleased to endorse Donald Trump for the presidency of the United States.


JOHN YANG: Today, President-elect Trump picked him to be attorney general.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was first elected to the Senate in 1996, and is known to have good relations across party lines. In the 1980s, as a Reagan-appointed U.S. attorney in Alabama, he had made his name as a tough, aggressive prosecutor. In 1994, he was elected Alabama attorney general.

In the Senate, Sessions became a member of the Judiciary Committee, the same panel that rejected his nomination to be a federal judge in 1986 over accusations he had made racially insensitive comments.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks.

JOHN YANG: Sessions denied making some of the comments and said others were taken out of context.

He's been a leading voice against illegal immigration. In 2007, he dealt President George W. Bush a painful blow, helping defeat a bipartisan bill that would have created a guest-worker program for undocumented immigrants.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: You have got to have this amnesty. You have got to give up, and we will have amnesty. And in exchange for that, you guys, we will have a legal system that will work in the future. But it won't work.

JOHN YANG: Last year, he opposed the nomination of Loretta Lynch, whom he would replace as attorney general, over her support for President Obama's executive orders on immigration.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the president-elect's pick for attorney general, we are joined by Carrie Johnson. She is the justice correspondent for NPR.

Carrie, welcome back to the program.

CARRIE JOHNSON, NPR: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is Senator Jeff Sessions' reputation in Washington?

CARRIE JOHNSON: He's a 69-year-old senator. He's been a member of the Senate for more than — about 20 years now, Judy. And he's pretty well-liked across the aisle.

He also has a significant law enforcement background, serving as U.S. attorney in Alabama for about 15 years earlier in his career. But he's very tough on immigration, as your setup piece mentioned, and pretty tough as well on law and order, the kind of message we have been hearing from Donald Trump on the campaign trail.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, fill out the picture a little.

Who are some of the groups who are saying nice things about him, who support him?

CARRIE JOHNSON: The Heritage Foundation, very conservative think tanks here in Washington, and people who oppose immigration and opening up the immigration system.

On the other hand — and also Donald Trump's team, I should say that they point out that he has been a close ally of President-elect Trump for a long time, and they call him a great legal mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he is — as we should point out, and I think we have, he was is first U.S. senator to come out for Donald Trump.

But talk about now some of the groups, civil rights organizations, pro-immigration reform groups that have come out against him. What are they saying?

CARRIE JOHNSON: So, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU all have come out and said that this is a very inflammatory pick at a time when racial tensions are already high in the country because of police-involved shootings of unarmed African-Americans, that to pick somebody with this record of making racially insensitive statements is going backward, not moving forward.

Also, Judy, the Human Rights Campaign, the biggest LGBT advocacy in the country, has given him a zero for his voting rights record on those issues in the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Carrie, how unusual was it for the Senate to reject his nomination to the federal — there was a federal court appointment back in 1986, 30 years ago. He was rejected for that. How unusual was that?

CARRIE JOHNSON: Breathtaking.

As you know more than anyone, the Senate usually takes care of its own. And it has a strong record of backing picks from the president. This was a Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee that voted him down.

The irony is, Jeff Sessions now sat on that committee, including as its top Republican.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about since then? He's — over the years, he's had time. He served in public life. He went on to serve in the United States for, what, almost 20 years.

What has he done? How has he voted that would help us understand what his position is today on civil rights?

CARRIE JOHNSON: Well, the Trump team today on a call with reporters pointed out that he helped sponsor a congressional medal for civil rights hero Rosa Parks.

They point out he did vote in favor of Attorney General Eric Holder under President Obama, the first black man to serve as the nation's top law enforcement officer. And they say he has voted to authorize the Voting Rights Act in the past.

However, civil rights groups would tell you what, when the Supreme Court, in their view, gutted the act three years ago, Jeff Sessions celebrated that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the worry in the civil rights community about him?

CARRIE JOHNSON: The worry is that the voice of the Justice Department over the last eight years in trying to calm the nerves of the country and very aggressively investigate police departments for excessive force and racial discrimination, the worry is, under Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department Civil Rights Division would stop doing that work, it would stop doing work to protect voters, and instead perhaps focus on disability cases, religious freedom cases and the like, and move away from what their view is as the center of the lane for civil rights in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Carrie, what about with regard to immigration? What's the concern there on the part of the immigration reform people?

CARRIE JOHNSON: So, Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions have both been anti-immigration for a long time. The difference is, the White House and the attorney general have a lot of power in this regard.

And if Donald Trump gets his way and Jeff Sessions is confirmed, Jeff Sessions will control the immigration courts in this country, which hear deportation proceedings, decide whether people can be granted asylum and whether they have to remain detained while their cases are pending.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have said several times the president and the attorney general have the power without the involvement of Congress to undo, to make a lot of decisions that potentially could undo what we have seen coming out of this administration.

Is there a speculation about what could happen quickly in this administration, the new administration?

CARRIE JOHNSON: Yes, absolutely.

Among the things, Judy, that civil rights groups are talking about now is sort of assertive interpretation of laws that the Justice Department and the Education Department in this administration use to extend protections to transgender students in schools. That could be wiped away with the change of power in the White House and the Justice Department.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you mentioned it with regard to civil rights. And I think we were talking to you also about with regard to police use of force and the steps that have been taken by this administration to work with police departments to do more community policing, for example.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Well, my sense is that Senator Sessions and President-elect Trump will want to partners with local police, not overseers or investigators of them.

And that means some of these investigations and potentially some criminal charges go away in the federal system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Carrie Johnson, justice correspondent for NPR, thank you so much.


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