Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general pick, dogged by racism claims
10 January 2017
- From the section US & Canada
President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, has been dogged by allegations of racism, which have overshadowed his Senate confirmation hearings.
He was one of Mr Trump’s earliest supporters in his White House bid. As a key loyalist, he was a senior adviser to the New York tycoon on politics, national security and policy.
He is also a vice-chairman on the Trump presidential transition team.
The senator’s past remarks about race have drawn scrutiny and proved a roadblock in his political career.
The KKK joke
A Senate committee denied Mr Sessions a federal judgeship in 1989 after lawmakers heard testimony that he had used a racial slur.
He had also joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were OK until he heard they smoked marijuana.
But the Alabama senator told the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation testimony that allegations he had once supported the KKK were “damnably false”.
Mr Sessions was also accused of calling a black assistant US attorney “boy” and telling him to be careful about how he spoke to “white folks”.
He denied to the committee ever having called the lawyer “boy” and insisted he had merely advised him to be cautious about what he said to “folks”.
Mr Sessions on Tuesday also rejected claims he had labelled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People “un-American”.
His supporters deny he is a racist, pointing to his votes to extend the Voting Rights Act and to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks.
He has spent much of his career fighting immigration battles, ranging from amnesty bills on creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to visa programmes for foreign workers.
Mr Sessions supports limiting legal immigration, arguing it protects American jobs.
He also backs Mr Trump’s plan to build a wall along the US-Mexican border.
In a 2005 Washington Post op-ed, he argued that, “legal immigration is the primary source of low-wage immigration into the United States”.
The government, he argued, should be focused on “slowing the pace of new arrivals so that wages can rise, welfare rolls can shrink and the forces of assimilation can knit us all more closely together”.
Much of his strident view on immigration was laid out last year in his 25-page manifesto, “Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority“. In the report, he argues immigration was responsible for job losses and welfare dependency.
He called claims by technology entrepreneurs that immigrant workers with elite skills were part of the innovation process a “hoax”.
What’s his background?
Born Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III, the 69-year-old was Alabama’s attorney general before he joined the Senate in 1996.
He sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Judiciary Committee and the Budget Committee.
The lawmaker, who helped Mr Trump craft his foreign policy plan, was one of the few Republicans to come to his defence after he proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US.
When asked if he supported a temporary ban in Tuesday’s hearing, Mr Sessions said he did “not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States”.
He added that Mr Trump has since amended his proposal to focus on vetting individuals who come from countries with a history of terrorism.
Mr Sessions had previously Mr Trump was “treading on dangerous ground”, but that it was “appropriate to begin to discuss” the issue.
Gay marriage opposition
Like many Republicans, Mr Sessions has opposed the LGBT-rights movement, and in particular the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
In 2000 and 2009 he voted against legislation which would expand the definition of a hate crime to include offenses based on sexual orientation.
In 2015 after the Supreme Court voted to allow same-sex marriage across the US, he dubbed the decision an “effort to secularise, by force and intimidation”.
But Mr Sessions testified in Tuesday’s hearing he would follow the law of the land on gay rights.
As Alabama’s attorney general in 1996, he fought vigorously to prevent an LGBT-rights conference from meeting at the University of Alabama.
He promised to prosecute school administrators under a state law passed in 1992 that made it illegal for public universities to fund a group that promotes “actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws”.
When the university pledged to allow the conference to meet, he sought a court order to prevent it, but ultimately the 1992 order was overturned by a federal judge.
What about Guantanamo?
Mr Sessions has challenged calls to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and he has also questioned whether terrorism suspects have the right to be tried in civilian courts.
During his confirmation hearing, Mr Sessions said he accepted the law “absolutely” prohibits waterboarding.
He also said Guantanamo Bay was a “safe place” that fits the purpose of keeping prisoners “marvellously well”.