President-elect Donald Trump has settled on Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general, according to two people familiar with the matter.
It wasn’t immediately clear if Trump has formally offered the job to Sessions, a lawyer who was an early and ardent Trump backer, but the people familiar said Trump wants Sessions in the role.
A Trump aide on Thursday night called Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a one-time Trump rival who was under serious consideration for the role, to tell him the job was instead going to Sessions, one of the people familiar said. The people asked not to be named because the decision has not yet been made public.
Earlier Thursday, Trump telegraphed his decision by praising Sessions’ work as Alabama Attorney General after meeting with Sessions, who also had been under consideration for defense secretary.
At Trump Tower Thursday, reporters in the lobby asked Sessions if he’d like to serve in a Trump administration.
“Well, I’d be honored to be considered and Mr. Trump will make those decisions,” he said. Asked if he preferred the attorney general slot, he answered: “I haven’t — if he asked me, I’ll share with him but I’m not talking about my agenda at this point.”
The move would elevate one of Trump’s earliest congressional backers, and one of the most conservative senators, to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
The 69-year-old, four-term Alabama Republican is a hard-liner on free trade and immigration, arguing that prospective immigrants don’t have constitutional protections. He has opposed efforts to overhaul prison sentencing, back off the war on drugs and legalize marijuana.
Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, was one of the few lawmakers to defend Trump after he proposed a complete shutdown on Muslims entering the U.S. He told Stephen Bannon — the former Breitbart News chief named as Trump’s chief White House strategist — on a radio show in 2015 that Trump was “treading on dangerous ground” but it is “appropriate to begin to discuss” the issue.
The attorney general represents the U.S. in legal matters and gives advice to the president and government agencies. The Justice Department’s broad portfolio includes prosecution of white-collar crime and enforcement of antitrust and civil rights laws. Sessions would oversee all the U.S. attorneys’ offices.
Sessions was born in Selma, Alabama, the son of a country store owner. An Eagle Scout, Sessions received his undergraduate degree from Huntingdon College in Montgomery and his law degree from the University of Alabama. After some time in private practice, he became the U.S. attorney for Alabama in 1981 at age 34. Sessions has served as a captain in the Army Reserve and Alabama state attorney general.
One of his earliest decisions would be whether to follow through on Trump’s campaign promises to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the e-mail practices of his election opponent, Hillary Clinton. Before the election, Sessions called for a special prosecutor.
Trump also has yet to say whether he’ll ask for the resignation of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, who he criticized over the handling of the investigation into Clinton and for not recommending criminal charges against her.
Sessions would also be deeply involved in vetting potential Supreme Court picks for Trump, including one to fill the seat of Antonin Scalia, who died in February.
Sessions opposed all of President Barack Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court picks and also voted against the nomination of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, citing her support for the president’s executive actions that shielded some undocumented immigrants from deportation.
“At the outset of this nomination process, I said that no senator should vote to confirm anyone for this position — the top law enforcement job in America — who supported the president’s unlawful actions,” he said of Lynch’s nomination.
It’s hard to imagine Sessions’s fellow senators staging a fight over his confirmation, but there is likely to be scrutiny of his past in Alabama, particularly given the Justice Department’s role in protecting civil rights. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan picked Sessions for a judgeship, but his nomination never got out of committee after a firestorm over charges he had made racist statements.
Sessions acknowledged referring to the NAACP and other organizations as “communist inspired” and “un-American organizations with anti-traditional American values,” the New York Times reported in April 1986.
Sessions, though, eventually made it to the Senate and to a senior position on the Judiciary Committee.
Sessions has been hostile to gay rights, voting for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in 2006 and against the 2010 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
David Stacy, the government affairs director for Human Rights Campaign, told Metro Weekly that the prospect of Sessions as attorney general is “absolutely terrifying.”
Sessions could also face questions over his defense of Trump’s vulgar remarks about women that were recorded by the television show “Access Hollywood.” Sessions dismissed the notion that Trump was describing something akin to sexual assault.
Sessions, who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee that oversees immigration, would also be heavily involved in the planned review of Obama’s executive orders, many of which Trump has promised to reverse. Sessions called Obama’s executive order that would have granted work permits to a broader group of undocumented immigrants “brazen” and ‘illegal.”
His position on Trump’s proposed Muslim ban could provoke the most scrutiny.
After Trump suggested a “total and complete shutdown on Muslims” entering the U.S., Sessions said, “It’s time for us to think this through and the classical, internal American religious principles I don’t think apply providing constitutional protections to persons not citizens who want to come here.”
Still, he stopped short of fully endorsing the idea.
“As a principle, we want to be not condemnatory of other people’s religion,” he said to Bannon on the Breitbart News radio show last December. “And there are millions of wonderful, decent, good Muslims, hundreds of millions worldwide, and so we’ve got to be really careful that we don’t cross that line and I guess Mr. Trump has caused us all to think about it more concretely.”
Sessions strongly opposed a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul to reduce sentences on drug traffickers, although in 2010 he cut a deal with Democrats to reduce disparities between crack and cocaine sentences from 100:1 to 18:1.
On the Armed Services Committee, Sessions looked after the interests of Alabama defense installations such as the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville and the Anniston Army Depot.
In the Senate, Sessions also sits on the Armed Services, Budget and Environment and Public Works committees.
While most congressional Republicans spent much of the year avoiding talking about Trump, Sessions was an enthusiastic booster throughout, serving as a senior adviser on politics, national security and policy. Sessions serves a vice chairman of Trump’s transition.
Sessions had been fighting a lonely battle against the party’s establishment before Trump came along.
In Trump, Sessions saw someone strong enough to smash the system in Washington that he says caters to big money interests like the Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street, particularly on trade and immigration.
“Trump has a way of driving a message so people hear it. I’ve been talking about it for years and nobody hears it,” Sessions said in an interview before the Republican National Convention. “Trump has that gift.”