Jeff Sessions takes over as U.S. attorney general with a notable distinction among Donald Trump’s appointees: He’s a key Cabinet official who hasn’t yet publicly disagreed with the president.
Unlike Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who defended the value of NATO or Defense Secretary James Mattis who disputed the effectiveness of torture, Sessions, who won Senate confirmation Wednesday evening, is a kindred spirit with the president on law enforcement. They both champion aggressive policing, enforcement of voter registration laws and strong curbs on immigration.
“His biggest crime, I think, is that he’s very conservative,” Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said during more than 30 hours of often angry debate before the Senate voted 52-47 to confirm their colleague from Alabama. Sessions was sworn into office Thursday in a White House ceremony.
Sessions, 70, is one of the president’s most trusted loyalists in Washington. He was the first Republican senator to back Trump when he was seen as a long-shot during the presidential primaries. Sessions joins a tradition of attorneys general who were close confidants to presidents -- from John F. Kennedy’s brother Robert to Ronald Reagan’s adviser Edwin Meese and Barack Obama’s close friend Eric Holder.
“He will be a great protector of the people,” Trump said alongside Sessions at the White House as the new attorney general was sworn into office by Vice President Mike Pence.
The president signed executive actions instructing the Justice Department to stop violent crime, stop crime and violence against police and work with the Department of Homeland Security to “break the back of criminal cartels.”
Sessions responded that there’s “a dangerous current trend” of rising crime that endangers the American people.
Democrats have cited Sessions’ loyalty to Trump as one of their greatest concerns in light of Trump’s early moves as president, especially his order barring entry to the U.S. from seven mostly Muslim countries. They said Trump’s travel ban and his decision to fire Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, because she refused to enforce the ban show Trump is bent on testing the constitutional separation of powers.
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“Can we really expect him to be an attorney general who is independent from President Trump? I do not think so,” Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said during the Senate’s floor debate. “Now, more than ever, it is clear how important it is that the Department of Justice be independent from the president.”
During his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions, a former U.S. prosecutor and attorney general of Alabama, pledged to exercise independent judgment.
“I’m going to follow the laws passed by Congress,” he said. “The attorney general’s role is to enforce the law.”
Orin Kerr, a former Justice Department official, predicted Sessions will prove more independent than his critics assume.
“Sessions shares some of Trump’s views, but I think he’s much more of an institutional player than Trump,” said Kerr, a professor at the George Washington University Law School. “I expect he’ll have much more respect for process and existing institutions than the president has.”
Stewart Baker, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP who has held government national security positions, said that while Sessions may agree with Trump on immigration issues, “he’s about as aligned with the president’s view as Holder was with Obama” or Attorney General John Ashcroft was with President George W. Bush. “Or maybe a little less.”
While Sessions hasn’t laid out his stance on some key issues -- including antitrust enforcement -- he may be especially likely to provoke debate over politically-charged questions of voting laws and civil rights.
Republican senators created a backlash of online publicity for Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts when they barred her from the Sessions debate for reading from a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King. The late wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. admonished Sessions’ conduct as a U.S. attorney in Alabama for bringing a voter fraud case against three African-Americans, who were eventually found innocent by a jury.
Republicans rushed to Sessions’ defense, noting that he voted in the Senate to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.
“He is a thoroughly decent and honorable member of the United States Senate and he will do an outstanding job I believe in restoring the reputation of the Department of Justice,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
Democrats also focused on Trump’s unsubstantiated allegation that 3 million fraudulent votes were cast in last year’s election. While backing away from that assertion, the president said he’s asked Vice President Mike Pence to lead an investigation into whether voter registration rolls are accurate.
”Make no mistake, President Trump’s false claim that there were millions of fraudulent votes cast in the last election is an excuse for further voter suppression,” said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat.
Sessions said during his confirmation hearing that he believes "we regularly have fraudulent activities occur during elections cycles.”
"We will be watching closely what happens," Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in an interview. "When we look at his record we see someone who has been hostile to civil rights."
Those who support Sessions say he’ll be fair and independent, enforce the nation’s laws regardless of politics, and improve the Justice Department’s relationship with other law enforcement agencies.
“I would expect that the president, knowing that the man he has picked for this job is as qualified as he is, would give great deference to the attorney general,” Steven Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, said in an interview. “I have no question in my mind that should Senator Sessions serving as attorney general believe that any inappropriate action was being suggested, he would be at the table and be vocal about it.”With assistance from Toluse Olorunnipa.