Trump’s Vows to Be Tested Early by Sessions Confirmation Fight

  • AT&T-Time Warner merger, hacking on attorney general’s agenda
  • Opposition to nominee centers largely on civil rights issues

Trump Cabinet Nominees Will Be Grilled on the Hill

Much of what Donald Trump vowed to accomplish as president will land on the desk of Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, his pick for attorney general.

Restricting immigration. Imposing tougher criminal justice policies. And deciding the fate of the $85.4 billion proposed merger between AT&T Inc. and Time Warner Inc., which President-elect Trump continues to oppose.

Jeff Sessions

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Implementing that agenda will require undoing a range of Obama-era policies that offered a gentler approach to enforcing immigration than Sessions advocates, tolerance for the booming market in legal marijuana and an overhaul of sentencing.

It’s a huge opportunity for the 70-year-old Alabama native who took a gamble backing Trump early in the Republican primaries and is now on the cusp of becoming the nation’s top law enforcement officer. With his Senate confirmation hearings beginning on Tuesday, the question is how many Democrats will vote against Sessions to protest the changes he’s sure to make, knowing they will fall short of blocking the nomination unless some of his fellow Republicans turn against him.

“The new job he’s seeking is one that requires a much bigger view of the world than any one of us would have as a United States senator,” said Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who has served alongside Sessions on the Judiciary Committee and said he plans to ask tough questions in the committee.

Several key issues will immediately fall into Sessions’ lap if he’s confirmed for the post, including the AT&T-Time Warner deal; how to respond against Russia for the hacking attacks during the presidential campaign; and managing tensions between police departments and minority communities around the country.

Early Test

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was a federal prosecutor in his home state and served as Alabama’s attorney general before winning election to the Senate in 1996.

Long one of the Senate’s more conservative members, Sessions’ public record -- including allegations of racist comments that scuttled his nomination to a federal judgeship in the 1980s -- gives opponents plenty of fodder to raise during this week’s hearings. His will be among the first for Trump’s Cabinet picks and may provide an early indication of how easy or hard subsequent confirmation battles will be.

But on top issues to the business community, such as how to punish misconduct on Wall Street and by corporations, Sessions’ record isn’t clear. The former prosecutor indicated at a Senate hearing six years ago that he wouldn’t back away from charging a major company if there was evidence of criminal conduct.

“I was taught, if they violated the law, you charge them. If they did not violate the law, you do not charge them,” Sessions said during a 2010 confirmation hearing for former Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

He made the comments in reference to the Justice Department’s investigation into BP Plc over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Sessions expressed concern that the department might refrain from prosecuting the company because it was worried that a criminal charge could cause wider harm to innocent people after the collapse of Arthur Andersen LLP, which was indicted by the U.S. for destroying documents related to the Enron Corp. case in 2002.

Sessions also has said federal prosecutors should have the tools and authority to bring cases against banks and corporate executives, remarking in a 2010 hearing that state and local authorities lack the resources needed for such complex matters.

Yet while on the Judiciary Committee, Sessions hasn’t played a big role in the panel’s oversight of antitrust enforcement. He asked no questions of the past two chiefs of the antitrust division during their Senate confirmation hearings, according to transcripts.

Blocking AT&T’s proposed merger with Time Warner, which doesn’t present direct overlaps, could be challenging under traditional antitrust laws, and the Federal Communications Commission may not have jurisdiction.

Read more about AT&T says it can avoid FCC review of the merger.

Sessions also didn’t participate in a Judiciary hearing in September 2010 on prosecuting financial fraud or an oversight hearing of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force in 2011. Nor has he signaled whether he’d maintain the corporate enforcement priorities of the Obama administration, such as pursuing violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or the investigation of banks over the sale of bad mortgage bonds leading up to the financial crisis that has resulted in about $58 billion in penalties.

Because the attorney general also has authority over the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sessions may tangle with Silicon Valley leaders if the bureau renews its fight to require that Apple Inc. and other technology companies help it break into encrypted communications in terrorism and criminal investigations.

Civil Rights

Opposition to Sessions centers largely on issues of civil rights.

“The question is not is Jeff Sessions a racist; the question is not is Jeff Sessions a good man,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The question is what in his record over 40 years suggests we can trust him to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws? The onus is on Senator Sessions to prove in light of that record that he is fit for the position.”

Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, went further, saying in an interview that she thinks Sessions could turn “the clock back on our rights and liberties.”

Aron and other critics say they are especially concerned about what Sessions would do about restricting Muslims or others groups from entering the U.S.; enforcing consent decrees the Justice Department has reached with police departments to ensure minorities are protected; and ensuring voting rights are preserved.

A coalition of 144 groups have joined in a petition asking the Senate to block the nomination, and more than 1,300 professors from 178 law schools in 49 states sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee urging that Sessions be rejected.

While he supported re-authorizing the Voting Rights Act, Sessions also applauded a 2013 decision by the Supreme Court to strike down a section of the law that required some states to get approval from the Justice Department before changing election laws.

Sessions worked with Democrats to pass legislation that reduced sentencing disparities for the possession of crack versus powder cocaine, which produced much longer sentences for blacks than whites. However, he hasn’t committed to further criminal justice reforms and has called the federal government decision to look the other way on the creation of legal marijuana markets a “tragic mistake.”

Legal Immigration

Sessions has expressed concern not only about illegal immigration but legal immigration as well, a worry to businesses that depend on recruiting foreigners to fill what they say are gaps in the U.S. workforce. His stance on illegal immigration also has sparked questions about whether he would move to punish or deport more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. They provided their information to the government under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in order to remain in the country and free of prosecution.

Sessions’ backers say he’ll be a dogged and honest enforcer of the law. Heading into Tuesday’s hearing, he’ll count on support from groups such as the Fraternal Order of Police, National Sheriffs’ Association, National Association of Police Organizations Inc., Major Cities Chiefs Association and the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

"As attorney general, Jeff Sessions will lead a Department of Justice that once again prioritizes upholding the rule of law and ensuring public safety,” said Sarah Isgur Flores, a spokeswoman for his confirmation team.

Besides highlighting Sessions’ vote to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act, supporters frequently cite his role as U.S. Attorney in helping bankrupt the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, a rebuttal against accusations of racism he’s faced for three decades.

The Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions’ nomination in 1986 to be a federal judge after other Justice Department lawyers alleged he had made racist comments. Sessions denied the comments or said he couldn’t recall them. In 1985, Sessions faced criticism that he selectively prosecuted three black civil rights activists for voter fraud -- all of whom were later acquitted by a jury.

"I think he’ll be a great attorney general," William Smith, who Sessions hired in 2009 as the first black Republican chief counsel on the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. "He is an honest man, and he has the highest character of any member in the Senate that I’ve been associated with."

Accusations that Sessions is racist are "hogwash" and "unsubstantiated," said Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, who worked with Sessions on the Judiciary committee in 2010. Her group launched a new ad campaign to help Sessions, airing commercials in conservative-leaning states with Democratic senators.

If confirmed, Sessions will "return the Department of Justice to being an organization that is committed to the rule of law" and stop it "from being used as a political weapon," Severino said in an interview.

Senators know Sessions’ voting record and positions very well, said Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democratic leader. They also know him personally as one of their own, which Durbin acknowledged could make the difference between confirmation and a second rejection.

"We know one another," Durbin said. "There’s a personal element here which makes the decision on how you vote different."

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE