Donald Trump chooses Jeff Sessions for attorney-general
DONALD TRUMP's nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama (pictured) as attorney-general—making the hardest of nativist hardliners the country’s top law officer and head of the Department of Justice—is a timely reminder that words spoken on the campaign trail have meaning, that politics is not showbusiness, and that America’s government takes decisions that make or break lives, shape economies and set norms across the globe. In the immediate aftermath of Mr Trump’s election, some boosters suggested that the president-elect is not really an ideologue, might bring moderates into his administration and is perhaps barely interested in the business of governing at all—for all the world as if P.T. Barnum were headed for the White House. The nomination of Mr Sessions suggests that is wishful thinking.
The 69-year-old senator from Alabama, one of Mr Trump’s earliest supporters and his closest adviser from the world of professional politics, will have sweeping powers over immigration enforcement. If confirmed by the Senate, he will immediately hold in his hands the fate of such groups as the 728,000 migrants granted the right to stay and work in America by President Barack Obama under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals scheme (DACA), after being brought into the country as children. Mr Sessions, the Senate’s most consistent and ferocious critic of both illegal and legal immigration, has several times sought to pass laws abolishing the DACA scheme. He unsuccessfully tried to bar the Obama administration from extending its benefits—which include social security numbers and work permits—to more migrants. His legislation would have prohibited current DACA recipients from renewing their papers, which last two years at a time—effectively leaving them unable to work or travel without fear of deportation.
There are some 11m migrants in America without the right legal papers—a number so large that many of Mr Sessions’s colleagues in the Senate, from both parties, believe that not all can possibly be deported, so that law-enforcement should focus on those guilty of serious crimes and the government should offer a path to legal status for those who have built productive lives.
Mr Sessions disagrees. He has spent the last decade leading Senate opposition to bipartisan immigration reform bills, arguing that illegal immigration depresses wages and takes jobs from out-of-work Americans. On legal migration, he is a sceptic of the H1-B visa scheme that helps companies recruit highly skilled foreigners, such as scientists or engineers, accusing wealthy business bosses, the government, the national press and the “cosmopolitan set” of mocking the anxieties and needs of “everyday Americans.”
On the campaign trail Mr Sessions has echoed Mr Trump’s focus on immigration as a menace to national security. On the eve of the election he called for a president willing to enforce immigration laws, saying that “without a commitment to deport aliens who violate our immigration laws, we lose our ability to protect our communities from criminal aliens, terrorism, and cartel-related crime and violence.” As attorney-general it is safe to assume he will put intense pressure on so-called “sanctuary cities”—mostly Democratic-run cities, including some of the country’s largest, which typically instruct police officers or city officials not to ask people about their immigration status, and in some cases limit co-operation with federal immigration authorities. Such cities call it vital for immigrants to feel able to report crimes to police or interact with social services and schools without fear, and will resist federal pressure to turn their municipal officers into de facto immigration agents.
Expect Democrats to highlight the attorney-general’s role overseeing civil rights, and to bring up Mr Sessions’s history of allegedly racist comments as a federal prosecutor in Alabama—comments which saw him denied confirmation as a federal judge in the 1980s. The nomination sent news outlets scrambling to their archives to dig out transcripts of those fateful Senate judiciary committee hearings from 1986. Senators heard a Justice Department official testify that Mr Sessions, then US Attorney for the Southern district of Alabama, had suggested that a prominent white civil rights lawyer might justly be called “a disgrace to his race” for representing black clients. Under questioning Mr Sessions said that he did not recall making that comment, and could not understand why he would have made it, but did not deny his colleague’s account. Asked whether he had called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights group, a “pinko” organisation that hates white people, Mr Sessions told his Senate inquisitors: “I am loose with my tongue on occasion, and I may have said something similar to that.” He did deny the account of a black federal prosecutor who testified that Mr Sessions called him “boy” and chided him to be careful how he spoke to “white folks”. Twenty years later Mr Sessions is in a position to avenge that humiliation.
Expect, too, much talk of the attorney-general’s role overseeing voting rights, even after federal monitoring of state and local election rules has been sharply reduced by the Supreme Court. During his confirmation hearing back in 1986 Mr Sessions agreed that he had called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) a “piece of intrusive legislation.” By the time he became a senator his tone had greatly changed. He voted to reauthorise the VRA and sponsored legislation to honour with the Congressional Gold Medal the black civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, who endured racist violence at the hands of local police to promote the cause of voting. In Senate hearings Mr Sessions frequently said that there had been serious racial discrimination against blacks in the South. But he also sided with those conservatives who argued that the South had changed, making it unnecessary to maintain Section Five of the VRA which obliged a long list of jurisdictions with a history of racism to seek federal “preclearance” for any change to electoral laws, down to the location of polling places. In time the Supreme Court would come to agree with Mr Sessions and colleagues, striking down Section Five.
Democrats and civil-rights groups charge that Republican-run state governments across the South responded with a spate of laws making it harder to vote, including in ways that triggered federal lawsuits accusing states of unlawfully targeting the voting rights of blacks and other minorities. As a senator Mr Sessions has opposed calls for Congress to step in and restore federal powers over voting laws, saying in 2014: “To pass a law in the U.S. Congress that provides penalties only to some states and not to others can only be justified for the most extraordinary circumstances. And the justification no longer exists." Mr Sessions is certain to have those views scrutinised in his Senate confirmation hearings.
Yet Mr Trump’s triumphant takeover of the conservative movement makes it perilous for any Republican senator to oppose one of his earliest cabinet nominations. That will require a lot of painful swallowing for such colleagues as Senator John McCain of Arizona. Mr Sessions is one of handful of senators to vote against Mr McCain when that veteran foreign policy hawk—who as a young navy pilot was shot down, imprisoned and tortured in Vietnam—sought to outlaw harsh interrogation techniques. In 2005 Mr McCain proposed a ban on the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against anyone in American military custody, following reports of abuses in Iraq. Mr Sessions was one of nine senators to vote against the ban. In 2015 Mr McCain proposed a ban on the CIA, FBI and other government agencies using any interrogation techniques not permitted by the Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations, which sets rules for questioning prisoners of war and detainees. Mr Sessions told reporters at the time that: "One of the problems with the field manual is it tells enemy combatants what they can do and how they can conduct themselves to avoid effective interrogation, so we don't need to spell out everything that's permitted.”
In 2009 Mr Sessions called Eric Holder, attorney-general under Mr Obama, “’too soft” in his handling of terrorism, and accused him of helping America’s enemies by releasing Bush-era legal memos about the use of harsh interrogation techniques. In 2011 he wrote in the Washington Post that the Department of Justice was making a “dangerous” mistake by treating alleged terrorists as candidates for criminal prosecution, with the same legal rights to remain silent and be represented by a lawyer as any suspect. Instead, he wrote, the CIA should be given access to high-value detainees, and allowed to extract as much information as possible.
“This administration has lost sight of the reality that actionable intelligence—not criminal prosecution—is the only way our country can detect and foil the next al-Qa’eda plot,” wrote Mr Sessions.
In 2015 he urged colleagues, unsuccessfully, to block Mr Holder’s successor as attorney-general, Loretta Lynch, on the grounds that she had defended the legality of Mr Obama’s executive actions on immigration, such as DACA. Now he is likely to be Ms Lynch’s successor.