President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Sen. Jeff Sessions to be the next attorney general, igniting what promises to be a bruising battle with Democrats who fear the staunch conservative will take the Justice Department in a completely different direction than the Obama administration.
Mr. Sessions, an Alabama Republican, was a key driving force in opposing the 2013 Senate immigration bill, and would likely quickly make his presence felt on the issue, including leading a crackdown on sanctuary cities. He has also opposed efforts to overhaul mandatory minimum sentencing laws, legalization of marijuana, and was among the few lawmakers who defended Mr. Trump after he announced his initial proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
“He is a world-class legal mind,” Mr. Trump said in nominating him. “Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him.”
Mr. Trump also named retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn to be his national security adviser, and Rep. Mike Pompeo, Kansas Republican, to be his nominee for CIA director.
Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Sessions will need to be confirmed to their posts by the Senate, while Mr. Flynn, as an adviser to the White House, does not.
Usually senators who are nominated face easy confirmations, but Democrats on Friday signaled they will likely put Mr. Sessions through the ringer.
“Although a respected colleague, Senator Sessions deserves and no doubt expects the same exacting, serious scrutiny that any other attorney general nominee would receive,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, in a statement.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein acknowledged that she and Mr. Sessions disagree on a great many issues but said the “awesome responsibility” of the attorney general position requires “intense scrutiny.”
“The attorney general should be above the political fray — our laws absolutely must apply equally to all Americans if we’re to have confidence in them,” the California Democrat said.
Liberal groups were egging Democrats on, begging for a fight and accusing Mr. Sessions of being just shy of a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
“The handful of people who might be even less equipped than Jeff Sessions to dispense justice on behalf of the American people typically spend their weekends wearing pointy hats and burning crosses,” said Charles Chamberlain, head of Democracy for America.
Civil rights groups, as well as marijuana legalization advocates, were dismayed by the choice.
“Sen. Sessions as AG is deeply troubling, and supports an old, ugly history where civil rights were not regarded as core American values,” the NAACP said in a statement on Twitter.
Mr. Sessions is in the Senate because Democrats blocked him from a previous appointment to a federal judgeship in 1986. Allegations of racism emerged when Mr. Sessions was nominated and he ultimate withdrew his nomination.
During the confirmation process, he was accused during his time as a U.S. attorney in Alabama of having called a black assistant U.S. attorney “boy” and referring to the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP as both “un-American” and “communist-inspired.”
A decade later Mr. Sessions ran for the Senate, where he’s served since 1997.
The American Civil Liberties Union, while it does not endorse selections for cabinet positions, encouraged lawmakers and the public to research Mr. Sessions’ background and stance on key issues.
“Sen. Sessions has called the ACLU un-American and communist, assertions we flatly reject,” the ACLU said in a statement. “His 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.”
With marijuana legalization taking a step forward this election — with four new states legalizing recreational use of the drug — advocates are concerned what the confirmation of Mr. Sessions could do to their efforts.
“While the choice certainly isn’t good news for marijuana reform, I’m still hopeful the new administration will realize that any crackdown against broadly popular laws in a growing number of states would create huge political problems they don’t need and will use lots of political capital they’d be better off spending on issues the new president cares a lot more about,” said Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell.
The attorney general’s post is particularly important because it has been seen as not just a member of the president’s Cabinet, but also an independent check of White House power. Under President Obama, however, it served more as an enabling force for his expansion of executive power — with mixed results in the courts.
Mr. Sessions was a fierce political ally for Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign, breaking his own personal precedent to endorse the maverick Republican when most other members of Congress refused to connect themselves to the man who now leads their party.
He was one of few lawmakers who defended Mr. Trump’s initial proposal to deny all Muslims entry to the United States.
“The law of the United States is today that if a president finds a person or class of persons are detrimental to the United States they can be denied admission, he can place certain restrictions on it,” Mr. Sessions said in June on MSNBC’s “Meet The Press.” “We can do a better job of inquiring of applicants from countries that have a history of attacking us, what their beliefs are and we don’t have to accept everybody.”
Mr. Sessions has also opposed recent efforts at sentencing reform, arguing against the reduction of some mandatory minimum sentences.
Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said while Mr. Sessions has posed a challenge to sentencing reform efforts in the Senate he has been supportive of other criminal justice efforts meant to lower recidivism rates.
“He posed a challenge for sentencing reform,” said Ms. Harris, whose group helped lead criminal justice reform efforts on the Capitol Hill this year. “But it is fair to point out he is not totally tone deaf to some of the issues in criminal justice reform.”
His staunch support of law enforcement throughout his career earned him praise from two unions Friday — the National Sheriff’s Association and the National Fraternal Order of Police.
“Since his arrival in the Senate in 1996, Jeff Sessions has been a key law enforcement ally and prominent supporter of police officers,” said FOP President Chuck Canterbury. “We’ve worked closely with him throughout his career, most recently on issues like asset forfeiture and sentencing reform. Like out members, he is also a strong proponent of federal enforcement of our nation’s narcotics laws.”