Born on December 24, 1946 in Selma, Alabama, Jeff Sessions went on to work as U.S. attorney for his home state before receiving a district court judge nomination from President Ronald Reagan. His nomination was rejected by a judiciary committee due to concerns over disturbing statements made by Sessions concerning race. He later won a U.S. Senate seat in 1996, winning three more successive terms over the ensuing years. The first senatorial supporter of Donald Trump for president, Sessions was nominated for U.S. attorney general after Trump's electoral win. Following a wave of Democratic opposition and protests from civil and human rights organizations, Sessions was confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate in February 2017.
Background and Education
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was born on December 24, 1946, in Selma, Alabama, the son of a general store owner, and grew up in the rural town of Hybart. Nicknamed "Buddy," he was very active in the Boys Scout, and eventually became an Eagle Scout in 1964. He attended Wilcox County High School in Camden where he played football and became class president. He went on to study at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, graduating in 1969. Sessions earned his Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1973. He worked as an attorney during the mid-’70s and served in the U.S. Army Reserves into the next decade, where he rose to the rank of captain.
After working as Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama from 1975-77, Sessions was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as U.S. attorney for the same region in 1981. Reagan also nominated Sessions for a judge’s seat in the U.S. District Court in 1986, but his political rise was thwarted during hearings held by a bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee.
Allegations surfaced that Sessions had made a comment in which he appeared to condone the KKK, however, Sessions apologized, stating that he was joking when he made the remark. One colleague, who didn’t consider Sessions a racist, testified that Sessions had nonetheless made comments describing the NAACP Defense Fund and American Civil Liberties Union as “un-American,” while another African-American colleague, echoing the previous statements, also testified that Sessions had called him “boy.”
In his own defense, Sessions told the committee: "I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create. I am not a racist."
The judiciary committee, however, voted against Sessions’ judgeship, 10-8. Sessions was only the second nominee rejected by the committee in 48 years.
After having been elected attorney general of Alabama in 1994, Sessions ran for the U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket and won a seat in 1996. He would go on to win three more successive elections, running unopposed in 2014. Throughout his congressional service, Sessions was noted for his conservative focus on maintaining a strong military and law enforcement, limiting the role of government, cracking down on illegal immigration and being a budget hawk. He supported President George W. Bush’s tax cuts while actively campaigning against the president’s immigration reform plan in 2007.
A foe to many Democratic initiatives, the senator opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, geared towards equitable wages for women, and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
In late February 2016, Sessions became the first senator to officially endorse Donald Trump’s run for the U.S. presidency. After Trump won the electoral college and became the 45th U.S. president, he nominated Sessions to become attorney general.
Attorney General Confirmation
A wave of challenges arose over Sessions’s nomination, with scores of civil and human rights organizations protesting his record. Beyond charges of past racism, opponents of his nomination questioned his support of tough jail sentencing for low-level drug offenses, torture in the form of waterboarding and surveillance methods related to the Patriot Act. He was also scrutinized for speaking against the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of same-sex marriage.
During his confirmation hearing, Sessions defended his record and vehemently denied charges of racism. "This caricature of me from 1986 was not correct," Sessions said. "I conducted myself honorably and properly. . .I did not harbor the kind of animosity and race-based discrimination ideas that I was accused of. I did not!”
However, one of the most vocal opponents to Sessions' nomination, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, spoke out in the Senate by quoting Senator Edward Kennedy, who had been a member of the Senate Judiciary committee in 1986 and opposed his nomination by President Reagan for a federal judgeship: “He is, I believe, a disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position.” Warren also began reading a letter from the late Coretta Scott King, who also opposed Sessions’s 1986 nomination, however, in a controversial move Republican senators silenced her for having “impugned” her senatorial colleague.
On the evening of February 8, 2017, Sessions was confirmed as attorney general in a 52-47 vote that ran along party lines with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia joining Republicans in support. "It was a special night, and I appreciate the friendship from my colleagues — even those who, many of them, who didn't feel able to vote for me — they were cordial and so we continue to have good relations, and [I] will continue to do the best I can," Sessions told reporters after his confirmation.
Meetings with Russian Ambassador
On March 1, 2017, The Washington Post reported that Sessions had two conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in July and September 2016 when Sessions was a senator. Sessions did not disclose the meetings during his confirmation hearing as attorney general. During the hearing, Democratic Senator Al Franken asked Sessions what he would do if he learned anyone from the Trump campaign had communicated with the Russian government during the presidential campaign, and Sessions responded: “I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Congressional Democrats and some Republicans demanded that Sessions recuse himself from overseeing an investigation into communications between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on Sessions to resign. "There cannot be even the scintilla of doubt about the impartiality and fairness of the attorney general, the top law enforcement official of the land," Schumer said. "Because the Department of Justice should be above reproach, for the good of the country Attorney General Sessions should resign."
Sessions issued a statement following the report, stating he “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
The Justice Department said Sessions had met Kislyak at his office as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. His prior meeting with the Russian ambassador was with a group of other ambassadors after a Heritage Foundation speech.
The White House also issued a statement responding to the report, calling it "the latest attack against the Trump Administration by partisan Democrats."
The day after the report surfaced about Sessions meeting with the Russian ambassador, he recused himself from any investigations into the 2016 presidential campaign.
Sessions, a devout Methodist, wed teacher Mary Blackshear in 1969. They have three children — Mary, Ruth and Sam — and 10 grandchildren.
(Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
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