WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Donald Trump on Friday named his earliest and staunchest supporter in the Senate, conservative Republican Jeff Sessions, to become the next U.S. attorney general, triggering an outcry from civil rights groups as well as some conservatives outside Congress who are uneasy about Sessions’ positions.
If approved for the job by a simple majority in the Republican-dominated Senate, Sessions, 69, would lead the Justice Department and the FBI. He brings a record of controversial positions on race, immigration and criminal justice reform that Democrats may target.
Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and Trump critic, said on Twitter, “Jeff Sessions, considered too racist to be a judge in the ‘80s, is Trump’s AG.”
Holly Harris, executive director of U.S. Justice Action Network, a sentencing reform advocacy group that includes powerful conservative tax reform lobbyist Grover Norquist, said Sessions’ nomination “obviously presents a challenge.”
Sessions has opposed lowering mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenders.
Many civil rights and immigration groups also have concerns about Sessions with the American Civil Liberties Union saying his positions on gay rights, capital punishment, abortion rights and presidential authority in times of war should be examined.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Reuters: “Our nation deserves an attorney general who will be committed to enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws and who will not turn the clock back on progress that has been made.”
Trump spokesman Jason Miller defended Sessions against allegations of racism, saying: “When Senator Sessions was U.S. attorney he filed a number of desegregation lawsuits in Alabama, and he also voted in favor of the 30-year extension of the Civil Rights Act... So we feel very confident that Senator Sessions has the background and the support to receive confirmation.”
Sessions’ office did not respond to a request for comment on his nomination or criticism.
Sessions was a federal prosecutor in 1986 when he became only the second nominee in 50 years to be denied confirmation as a federal judge. This came after allegations that he had made racist remarks, including testimony that he had called an African-American prosecutor “boy,” an allegation Sessions denied.
Sessions said he was not a racist, but he said at his hearing that groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union could be considered “un-American.” He also acknowledged he had called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a “piece of intrusive legislation.”
Sessions, a four-term senator from Alabama, has friends on Capitol Hill. Convivial, with a pixie-like demeanor and soft Southern accent, his gentle manner belies his hard-line positions.
No members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold Sessions’ confirmation hearing, had expressed outright opposition to his nomination as of Friday morning, but many Democrats said he would get a thorough and tough confirmation hearing.
“Given some of his past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform, I am very concerned about what he would do with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and want to hear what he has to say,” said Charles Schumer, the newly elected Democratic Senate leader.
Judiciary Committee member Senator Jeff Flake, a moderate Republican on immigration issues and a long-time critic of Trump, said on Twitter that he will support Sessions, who he said is “well regarded, even by those who don’t always agree with him.”
The Justice Department under Democratic President Barack Obama has been criticized for siding with protesters over police in matters of racial profiling or unlawful use of force. His Justice Department opened investigations of 23 police departments around the country for patterns of civil rights violations and Sessions, as attorney general, would have the discretion to drop investigations that are still open.
Jim Pasco, the executive director of Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, said police have had a good relationship working with Sessions, especially on policies that allow police to keep assets seized from criminals.
“The door (to Sessions) has been open and we expect it to remain open,” Pasco said.
Sessions’ hard-line and at times inflammatory statements on immigration are similar to Trump’s but have angered other members of Congress. He opposes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and was an enthusiastic backer of Trump’s promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
As a senator, Sessions opposed Obama’s nomination of Loretta Lynch as attorney general on the grounds that she would carry out an Obama immigration policy that shielded many undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Sessions also has questioned the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to everyone born in the United States, and opposes plans to admit more immigrants from war-torn Middle Eastern countries.
As attorney general, Sessions would be able to turn more to state governments to enforce federal immigration laws.
He also could increase enforcement on companies that outsource technology jobs. As a senator, Sessions criticized U.S. companies that brought guest workers to the United States on temporary visas.
Sessions first endorsed Trump’s presidential bid in February, surprising those who had expected him to embrace Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a fellow Southerner and the favorite of the chamber’s most conservative wing.
Sessions was Trump’s only backer in the Senate for months and became a powerful member of his inner circle. He has led Trump’s national security committee since March and was named vice chairman of the transition’s executive committee last week.
Sessions defended Trump in October when a leaked video showed him bragging about groping women, leading dozens of Republican officials to drop their support.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Doina Chiacu, Mica Rosenberg and Julia Harte; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, John Walcott and Bill Trott