Who Is Jeff Sessions?
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 earned 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. That set off a series of consequential events, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee investigations on that front.
Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing
On June 13, 2017, Attorney General Sessions testified before a Senate Intelligence Committee, and said in his opening statement: "The suggestion that I participated in any collusion or that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government to hurt this country, which I have served with honor for 35 years, or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie."
He also denied that he had an undisclosed private meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at an event in April 2016 where President Trump was giving a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.
When asked about conversations he had with President Trump, Sessions said: “I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect the confidential communications I have with the president,” although he confirmed the president had not invoked executive privilege to keep his communications with subordinates confidential.
While Democratic senators accused Sessions of “stonewalling,” the attorney general said: "I am not stonewalling. I'm following historic policies of Department of Justice. You don't walk into any committee meeting and reveal confidential communications with the president of United States."
Sessions also confirmed the testimony fired FBI director James Comey gave to Congress, in which Comey said Sessions had left him alone with President Trump in the Oval Office. He also stated that Comey had spoken to him about his concern over being called into private meetings with the president. “While he did not provide me with any of the substance of his conversation with the president, Mr. Comey expressed concern about the proper communications protocol with the White House and with the president,” Sessions said.
The attorney general also defended his decision to give the president his opinion in favor of Comey’s firing despite the fact that he had recused himself from matters related to the Russia investigation. “It is absurd, frankly, to suggest that a recusal from a single specific investigation would render an attorney general unable to manage the leadership of the various Department of Justice law enforcement components that conduct thousands of investigations,” he said.
Exploring Clinton Allegations
Over the course of 2017, Sessions repeatedly came under fire from President Trump for recusing himself from the Russian investigation. Trump also openly wondered why Sessions wasn't investigating 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, for actions that included the Clinton Foundation's ties to the 2010 sale of a uranium company to a Russian nuclear agency. The calls to investigate Clinton were echoed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who twice wrote to the DOJ to request the appointment of another special counsel for the matter.
On November 13, 2017, the DOJ replied to Congressman Goodlatte with the news that senior federal prosecutors would evaluate some of the evidence before determining if a full-scale investigation was needed. The letter, which came one day before Sessions was set to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, raised concerns that the attorney general was bowing to political pressure, and thereby unable to operate on an independent basis.
On November 14, in an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Sessions defended his earlier testimony about contacts with Russians during the 2016 campaign. Insisting that his "story has never changed," the attorney general admitted to not remembering details from certain meetings and interactions, but also pushed back against accusations that he had not been forthcoming in his recollection of events. "I will not accept, and reject accusations that I have ever lied," he said, during one dramatic moment. "That is a lie!"
In February 2018, Sessions made the news again for a speech to the National Sheriffs' Association, in which he praised them for being a "critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement." Given his history, many took umbrage at his use of the term "Anglo-American," with the NAACP releasing a statement that decried his "latest racially-tinged comments." Others defended the attorney general, noting he was simply using a common legal term.
Later that month, President Trump again hammered his attorney general on Twitter, for delegating an investigation into potential federal surveillance abuses to the inspector general. This time Sessions pushed back, insisting he following appropriate procedures. "As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution," he said.
Along with the president, other Republican lawmakers called on Sessions to appoint a special counsel to investigate the FBI for possible surveillance abuses. Sessions declined to take that step, though in late March he revealed that he had tapped U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber to help review the case.
In June 2018, Sessions reversed an immigration appeals court ruling that had granted asylum to a Salvadoran woman who had been raped and beaten by her former husband. "An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family or other personal circumstances," he wrote. "Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune."
The attorney general's decision overturned the precedent set during the Obama administration that allowed more women to claim credible fears of domestic abuse when seeking asylum. Sessions said the previous administration had created "powerful incentives" for people to "come here illegally and claim a fear of return," and noted that he would restore "sound principles of asylum and longstanding principles of immigration law."
A few weeks later, a federal judge threatened to hold Sessions in contempt in a case in which the ACLU was attempting to overturn the deportations of several Central American women. The judge was considering the ACLU's request to temporarily halt the deportations, before learning that one of the plaintiffs and her daughter had been woken from a government facility in the middle of the night and put on a plane to El Salvador. A Department of Homeland Security official said the two would be returned to the United States immediately.
In August, the issue of Sessions's recusal from Russian investigations and the appointment of special counsel Mueller returned to the forefront by way of a presidential tweet. Frustrated by the "terrible situation," Trump called for his attorney general to "stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further." Sessions, of course, lacked the ability to do so, with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein in charge of Mueller's employment.
Later that month, following Trump's claim that his AG "never took control of the Justice Department," Sessions again pushed back with a strong rebuttal: "While I am Attorney General, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations," he said. "I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in, which is why we have had unprecedented success at effectuating the President's agenda — one that protects the safety and security and rights of the American people, reduces violent crime, enforces our immigration laws, promotes economic growth, and advances religious liberty."
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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