WASHINGTON – In December, after presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims" entering the country, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., introduced a "sense of the Senate" resolution affirming that the United States must not bar people from the country because of their religion.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. – a member of the Judiciary Committee, along with Leahy – voted against the resolution, but not before delivering a 30-minute oration urging fellow senators to reject the measure. The resolution, he warned, would make global migration to the United States a "human right."
It would mean, he said, that the United States "could not favor for entry the moderate Muslim cleric over the radical Muslim cleric." Or that a foreign cleric overseas could demand a tourist visa to deliver a sermon denouncing the U.S. Constitution "and claim religious discrimination" if it is not approved.
"I think," he said, "it is a dangerous step."
Although the measure passed the committee, it failed in the full Senate. And President-elect Trump has chosen Sessions, who has served in the Senate for 20 years, to be the next attorney general – a position that will give him the platform to shape civil rights policy and to defend the constitutionality of policies that effectively restrict Muslim immigration, legal and civil liberties experts warn.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, lauded Sessions as a "respected member and former ranking member" of the committee who has worked with Democrats on major legislation. He predicted that the committee will approve his nomination for consideration by the full Senate. "He knows the Justice Department as a former U.S. attorney, which would serve him very well in this position," Grassley said.
The appointment of Sessions is expected to bring sweeping change to the Justice Department as it operated under Loretta E. Lynch and her predecessor, Eric H. Holder Jr., who, when he was nominated to be the first black attorney general, pledged to make rebuilding the civil rights division his top priority.
Several former Justice officials predicted that Sessions would reverse the emphasis on civil rights and criminal-justice reform that Holder put in place.
"From his time as U.S. attorney through his service on the Judiciary Committee, he has left serious doubts about whether he would faithfully enforce civil rights laws as attorney general," said former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller. "The civil rights division was gutted during the last Republican administration, and the burden of proof is on Senator Sessions to show that he would not follow that same path."
Sessions voted against confirming Lynch as attorney general, citing her statements that President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration passed legal and constitutional muster. Sessions and other Republicans considered those measures to be presidential overreach.
"Ms. Lynch has said flat-out that she supports those policies and is committed to defending them in court," Sessions said at the time. "We do not have to confirm someone to the highest law enforcement position in America if that someone is publicly committed to denigrating Congress."
Obama's Justice Department stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act and successfully argued the historic same-sex-marriage case last year before the Supreme Court. Sessions has opposed same-sex marriage and has a zero rating from the nation's largest LGBT advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign.
"Senator Sessions brings experience, intelligence and passion to Justice," said Robert Raben, an assistant attorney general under President Bill Clinton and now president of the lobbying and consulting firm the Raben Group. "Regrettably, it is likely to be exercised toward the attempted elimination of civil rights, environmental and antitrust enforcement.
A former aide to Sessions said that, as attorney general, he will make national security and fighting terrorism a top priority.
"Sessions is of the mind that the most essential duty of government is to protect its citizens," the aide said. Sessions opposed closing the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and bringing terrorist detainees to the United States for trial in federal courts. "He felt it would needlessly eliminate an important tool in fighting terrorism and would needlessly put our citizens at risk."
The aide said that Sessions is "strongly in favor of an extremely tough stance on terrorists and believes that there's also a place for military commissions for unlawful foreign enemy combatants – a nonuniformed illegal terrorist without a nation who's killing women and children overseas."
One of the first things he would do is emphasize "finding and disrupting, in cooperation with the FBI and Homeland Security Department, terrorist cells in the United States," the former aide said. "There's a thousand open investigations right now. That will be a very high priority for him."
Jefferson Beauregard "Jeff" Sessions, 69, who was born in Selma, Alabama, began his career as a prosecutor in 1975 in the U.S. attorney's office in the Southern District of Alabama. In 1981, President Reagan nominated him to be the U.S. attorney for that district, where he served there for 12 years.
In 1986, Reagan nominated him to be a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, but at his Senate confirmation hearing, Justice Department lawyers who had worked with him testified that he had made racist statements. One of those lawyers, J. Gerald Hebert – now the director of the voting rights and redistricting program at the Campaign Legal Center – said that Sessions had called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union "un-American" and "Communist-inspired."
Thomas Figures testified that Sessions said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was "okay until I found out they smoked pot." Sessions later apologized for the comment, saying he was not serious when he said it. He also denied that he made racist statements, but he was not confirmed.
In 1994, he was elected attorney general of Alabama and in 1996 was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Sessions, who was the first senator to endorse Trump, in February, first met him in 2005 when Trump was criticizing the United Nations' plan for a $1.2 billion renovation of its New York City headquarters. Sessions invited him to testify about it before a Senate subcommittee hearing. After the hearing, they were out of touch until last year, when they had a phone call about immigration policy and Trump tried to get Sessions's endorsement. Sessions defended Trump when he called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants.
During Trump's campaign, Sessions was an adviser and his chief resource on policy issues. He was also the liaison with groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society, and he courted other GOP officials. Trump considered him as a possible running mate.
"Not only would Jeff bring integrity and immense expertise to the role of attorney general due to his decades of experience in the legal field and an impressive tenure on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Jeff has also gained the deep respect of his Senate colleagues for his commitment to upholding the rule of law," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the senior senator from Alabama and a fellow Republican.