Thirty years ago, federal judge nominee Jeff Sessions ran afoul of a Senate confirmation hearing after accusations emerged he called a black attorney “boy” and referred to the NAACP as “un-American.”
Now a senior member of that same Senate panel, the Alabama Republican, one of the chamber’s strongest conservatives, could once again face a confirmation battle as one of Donald Trump’s staunchest supporters.
POLITICO reports Sessions, as a reward for backing Trump, is under consideration for either U.S. Attorney General or Secretary of Defense. However, those same accusations of racial insensitivity and hardline attitudes on immigration could make a possible Cabinet position far from assured.
Sessions’ nomination could add fodder to Trump critics, particularly after the announcement of Steve Bannon, who leads the alt-right Breitbart News, as a top White House adviser.
“Jeff Sessions, just because he’s a senator, does not mean he doesn’t have any racist intent,” Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego told POLITICO, adding that Sessions aligns with Trump and is known for “anti-Latino and anti-minority viewpoints.”
Sessions could still get a pass from senators — even those who have been critics in the past — including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has disagreed with Sessions on immigration.
“He was the early, only supporter for Donald Trump … in the Senate,” Graham told reporters this week. “I believe that Jeff Sessions has earned the right to serve President Trump at the highest levels … I think he’s a good, competent, capable man.”
Sessions has long denied accusations of bigotry, telling the judicial confirmation hearing in 1986: “I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create. I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks. I have supported civil rights activities in my state. I have done my job with integrity, equality, and fairness for all.”
And his stance on immigration has made him popular with several senior Republicans.
“Just because the leadership does it or likes it doesn’t mean it’s right,” said California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, another early Trump congressional backer. “He’s been right on immigration. … It just so happens we now have a president-elect that sees directly eye to eye with what Jeff Sessions always has believed is right.”
Originally, Sessions was in rare company among Senate Republicans, supporting Trump over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the early months of the campaign. Now that loyalty looks like it will be paying off, when Trump named Sessions vice-chair of the transition executive committee.
Over his Senate career, Sessions frequently clashed with his own party on issues such as the federal defense budget and immigration, leading the attacks on the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” which in 2013 attempted to produce a compromise immigration reform bill. It could be just the thing that feeds backlash should he face another Senate confirmation hearing.